By J. Praught
In this economy, it is difficult to understand why billionaire owners and National Football League (NFL) players needed nearly four months to get their act together and hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), given the astronomical amount each side was certain to receive regardless of how the drama played out. But this sort of union-ownership negotiation isn’t any different than in most industries that collectively bargain, other than the amount of money at stake and the intense public scrutiny on both parties because of the NFL’s popularity. To label the lockout as “stupid” would be to oversimplify things, as most negotiations tend to strengthen the core of the business.
It is important to understand, first, why this long battle was a good and necessary process, and one that ultimately caused minimal damage to you, the fans. And I start here because so many NFL fans have been feeling a misguided rage about the labor situation, much of it based on a lack of understanding or oversimplifying what the parties should be doing.
Lock out vs. strike
Start with the very definition of a “lockout.” It means the owners denied the players the ability to conduct business as usual (i.e. mini-camps, access to playbooks, contract negotiations, personal training, etc.). The players did not “strike.” The players would have been perfectly happy continuing under the financial rules of the expired CBA, because it was widely thought that those terms strongly favored the players.
That said, conducting a lockout does not instantly vilify the owners. Really, it was just a legal move that not only protected them from liability, but forced the players to actively negotiate an agreement that each side could live with. And ultimately, that would be the key as in any negotiation: Each side has to give up things, but the mutual respect born of compromise builds a stronger relationship.
The players had a few strong cards on their side. First, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) took the tactical step of decertifying as a union. This allowed individual players to sue the league for any number of things. It also left the league exposed to the possibility of anti-trust litigation. Neither of these steps were ultimately roads the players were going to follow through until the end, as the risk of actually winning an anti-trust case would be paramount to killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
But the threat of such legal action was the players’ way of getting the owners to be serious in their negotiations, just as the lockout forced players to be. Negotiations move along when there is urgency. This CBA could have been hammered out any time in the last four years, but as in any negotiation, sides do not yield on economic issues until they are forced to.
So what was each side fighting so hard for?
What each side wanted
Well, the owners wanted a bigger piece of the overall revenue pie. Players and owners were splitting the enormous pie roughly 50–50 in the last deal. Now, owners will take home roughly 53 percent. The thinking is, if it’s the owners who are absorbing the risk of financing teams and stadiums, they should reap the bigger reward. This is a $9 billion pie, so the extra 3 percent is no small prize.
Owners also wanted a rookie wage scale that reflected sanity. The players did not fight this because, with the salary cap mechanism in place, monies previously paid toward unproven rookies will now be spread out among veterans who have “earned” it. You won’t be seeing first-round draft picks signing for contracts that make them the highest-paid player on their team, anymore, despite not having played an NFL game. Everyone can agree that this was long overdue.
The two biggest concessions that the players fought for, and won, were freedom and long-term health protection. The freedom they earned is that now most players can become unrestricted free agents after just four years of service (used to be five or six). This is huge because the shelf life of NFL players is not very long. Sure, your stars play for years. But the average player lasts just over one year in the NFL. The faster players have a chance to prove themselves and earn a chance to sign a new contract (one that carries huge upfront signing bonuses), the more they mitigate the risk of career-threatening injuries that destroy their earning power.
The violence of the NFL and the injuries players sustain drove the NFLPA to ask for long-term health protection, which it received. Before, players could only receive health care for the first five years upon retirement. In a sport that causes joint, brain and spinal damage, among other injuries, longer-term health benefits were a necessity. Now, any player who plays as little as just one game will receive access to health benefits for life. Deductibles are, but just having access to benefitsw and not having
to fight insurance companies over pre-existing conditions will help improve the quality of life of NFL veterans.
Among the other selling points of the new CBA: Minimum salaries will rise 10–12 percent depending on experience, teams will still be able to block one star per year from leaving via free agency by assigning a franchise tag to him and teams are now required to spend a minimum of 89 percent of the salary cap on salaries and benefits. Off seasons are shorter by five weeks, with later reporting dates and fewer full-contact practices; less contact means greater safety for the players, further protecting them from injury (an injured player loses financial might).
One of the details slowly emerging about the new CBA is renewed funding for new stadium projects. This matters to you Chargers fans because the NFL’s current stadium kitty is empty. With that extra three percent in revenues, some of that money will go toward new stadium projects. But before you get too excited, it will likely be on a first-come, first-served basis, which means projects in Los Angeles (which are already ahead of the San Diego situation) could steal that money before we ever get a chance at it, if we don’t act now. That means getting the city and the Chargers to come up with a deal and get it on the ballot asap. Because then, and only then, will the NFL step up and kick in dollars. The Chargers are seeking $100 million from the NFL.
Why the fans weren’t hurt
The best part about the new CBA is that it is a 10-year deal, with no opt-out clauses for either side. There will be no decertification. There will be no strikes or lockouts. We will have labor harmony for years to come. We will have our football.
And really, the fans’ misguided anger we’ve been seeing in the media should go away rather quickly. Why? Because we as fans really didn’t suffer throughout this process. If anyone should be angry, it should be the folks in Canton, Ohio, whose annual Hall of Fame Game was the only true casualty of this lockout. The stadium workers, for example, won’t be getting their annual pay day there (feel free to step in, NFL, and help!). The only loss for me, personally, is that the uncertainty meant I couldn’t plan my annual reunion with my college buddies (from across the country) for our fantasy football draft. We will live.
We’re not losing any preseason games. The regular season remains untouched. There will be no replacement players. It is understandable that fans were angry at the lockout, because they tuned in to ESPN or their local news, where all reports centered around topics only an economist could understand. The angrier the fan, the more likely they are to tune into lockout coverage, so you can be sure that ESPN would go out of its way to find a player or owner with an acrimonious quote, to sort of stir the pot. But the cooler heads (mostly) were the ones doing the hardcore negotiating. We can stop reading angry tweets from players not involved in the process.
Let the games begin
The Chargers’ first preseason game is Thurs., Aug. 11. Hillcrest has experienced a football revolution in the last few years, as more and more bars are showing games. Redwing has the NFL package and a grill. Urban Mo’s shows Charger games. But my stop for NFL action has been and will always be Flicks, where not only are all of the games shown in high definition, but they even play the sound. There’s free food and football-picking contests. NFL Sundays at Flicks are all about football. I love my dance music, but not when I am trying to watch a football game. Wherever you choose to watch, it’s exciting to know that football-watching is growing in popularity in our community.
I’m not glad that we had a lockout, but I’m certainly not mad, either. The players and owners are each happier than they were before, and now it’s time to worry about such things as whether the Chargers will win more than one game in the opening month.