Clean Hits?: The NFL and Collective Bargaining
The recent collective bargaining negotiations between the National Football League (NFL) and its Players Union have attracted a media spotlight not seen since the Major League Baseball (MLB) strike in 1994-95.
Despite the two intervening major sport lockouts — that of the National Basketball Association (NBA) I 1998-99 and that of the National Hockey League (NHL) in 2004-05 — the media attention levied on football’s negotiating issues far transcends anything faced by either of those two lesser sports. It is indeed a testament to the rapid and unexampled growth of the NFL that it (and its legal minutiae) has so quickly attained, and perhaps surpassed, the status of the National Pastime, baseball, as a cynosure of the public.
Though neither side has received truly favorable press — nobody wants to see football sacrifice a season — the NFL has come under attack for its seemingly persistent inability to play by the rules. It is my goal here to examine whether this is accurate, or whether this reflects the overall tendency of Americans to assume that the bigger power in a legal matter is the wrong one, an increasingly dangerous tendency that threatens to alter the very nature of America and American business. I will therefore focus on one major issue that arose several months ago, when NFL owners procured massive television contracts which were not conditional on the presence of the current (and most exciting and best qualified) players, while previously not having maximized revenues from television deals, thus leading to charges of collusion.
A January 19, 2011 article reported the following:
“The union’s TV complaint that Burbank is considering says the NFL structured contracts with its broadcast partners to make sure rights fees would be paid even with no games in 2011 — while not maximizing revenue from other seasons when the league would need to share that income with players. The union says that violates an agreement between the sides that says the NFL must make good-faith efforts to maximize revenue for players.”
At first glance, it may appear that the NFL is colluding against its players. Certainly the television contract does not seem the cleanest tactic that the NFL has used, and may have been one factor in the recent decision by a federal judge to strike down the lockout. But what merit does this hold? Does the NFL have a history of collusion or any drastic proclivity towards it, or is this an isolated instance of NFL misbehavior performed out of sheer frustration with the exorbitant demands of an already overpriced labor force?
It seems that, in fairness to the NFL, it is not a collusive organization on the whole. Whereas Major League Baseball recently settled claims from its Players Association, the MLBPA, regarding several veteran ballplayers who mysteriously were not signed after years of solid performance (one noted example was Jermaine Dye, a solid outfielder for the White Sox who was not signed after a year in which he hit close to 30 homers, a good number that only 25-30 players approach per year, and had a monster second half of the season to make up for a horrid first half)
, the NFL is known for consistently returning players to the field even when they are known malcontents who are clearly on the downsides of their careers. Whereas Dye went unsigned and received but one reasonable offer from the lowly Washington Nationals (and who can blame him for not wanting to sign there?! ), Terrell Owens, a washout in Buffalo after being acrimoniously thrust out of San Francisco, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Dallas, was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals and had yet another sub-par season in 2010 at the age of 36.
Randy Moss, another diva Wide Receiver whose performance has recently suffered and whose attitude has run him off of several teams, was likewise picked up — twice — in the 2010 season. Moss, 32 at the time, who was tossed off the Patriots in the early part of the season, surfaced on the Minnesota Vikings — the team with which he started his career and from which he had previously been booted — only to find himself the center of controversy surrounding his attitude and comments he had made at a team banquet, and be placed on waivers shortly thereafter.
With his on-the-field performance at next-to-nothing levels, Moss was still picked up by the Tennessee Titans, where his performance continued to remain stagnant: in his first four games with the Titans, he caught a total of five passes for sixty-two yards, and the Titans lost all four games.
Moss and Owens were signed because the NFL is a cutthroat industry where teams seek advantages wherever they think they may be had, even in the most unlikely of places. There is big money to be had for any team which stays competitive in the league and owners therefore pursue every opportunity for gain which may accrue to them. This is not the model which a collusive industry holds; collusion is the product of bad ownership which believes that by exclusion it will retain exclusive benefits to profits. Though the NFL seeks profits, it fails to meet that definition because it is inclusive and has no such regard for the exclusivity of them.
Consider the following statistics: Owens, in 2009 with Buffalo, caught 55 passes for a total of 829 yards and had just 5 touchdown receptions, which is extraordinarily low for a number 2 option at Wide Receiver, let alone for a number 1 option. If you take out week 11 in Jacksonville, where he caught 9 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown, his output shrinks to 46 catches for 632 yards and 4 TDs, in a campaign in which Owens played in 15 games (he played in all 16 but we are excluding the Bills’ loss to Jacksonville). On average, then, he is catching 3 passes for 40 yards per game and scoring a TD every 4th game.
For a number 1 option at wideout, we expect 6 catches for 70 yards per game and a TD every game-and-a-half, an output which corresponds with the 95+ catches of Hines Ward (95), Larry Fitzgerald (97), Reggie Wayne (100), Andre Johnson (101), Brandon Marshall (101), and Wes Welker (123) and the 1120+ yards of Marshall (1120), Roddy White (1153), Ward (1167), Vincent Jackson (1167), DeSean Jackson (1167), Steve Smith (1220), Santonio Holmes (1248), Moss (1264), Wayne (1264), Sidney Rice (1312), Miles Austin (1320), Welker (1348), and Johnson (1568).
Owens’ output was less than half of this, and STILL he was paid $2M,
which, though not a number 1 receiver’s salary, is still far more than his performance merits, and this for an aging player who is nationally noted for his corrosive attitude (which itself would bring a number 1 option’s salary down substantially) and for dropping passes. No collusive league would ever pay such a player such a salary.
For Moss the statistics would not tell the story in the same way. All that needs to be done is to say that he was signed twice by teams after he was kicked off of other teams in a year in which he played but 11 games and caught 26 passes for 393 yards, barely an output that would be put up with from a rookie receiver who was drafted in the 4th round of the NFL draft. If the NFL were collusive this could never happen.
At the same time, this same tendency of the NFL to seek lucre at all costs can be the driving force behind activities that are in appearance collusive. All that needs to be done to make it such is for those whom the NFL would otherwise include — the players first and foremost — to reject inclusion. In that case, the NFL will, naturally, take the position that if they do not want to be included in a profit-making activity, the NFL will gladly take the profits without them. Whether this is truly collusion is perhaps the decision of the individual to whom the thought strikes; but certainly it seems to appear as collusion when in fact it is not by any means deliberately collusive. Players’ claims notwithstanding, it is very unlike the NFL to procure less-than-maximum television revenues simply because they must split them with another group; in fact it goes contrary to all other signs that the NFL shows and actions that it takes.
I do not like Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the NFL — who does?
— but it is not in my interests to claim that he is overseeing an organization characterized by collusion when in reality it is clean in that regard. That the NFL is a wealthy industry and that the owners have more than the players — more money, more education, more culture, and hence more resources to draw on — is well beyond dispute. That it pursues strong-arm tactics and is not clean as a whistle is likewise more or less apparent to the careful (or even the not-so-careful) observer. But those two descriptions — they surely do not confirm claims of any specific wrongdoing, and especially not of collusion.
The difference between a strike and a lockout is that a strike is declared by the players and a lockout is performed by the owners, who “lock the players out” of their facilities.
(Accessed May 7, 2011)
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