The Box congratulates Green Bay. That was a good Super Bowl, solid B+. The better team won; more importantly, the better team covered. So, as we slip harbor from NFL World and set course for Baseball World (Padres pitchers and catchers report for spring training on Sunday), let’s take one last look at the National Football League.
Almost certainly there will be a strike/lockout this year. The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), expires March 3. The parties may begin their assaults on each other any time after that. The universal opinion is that the owners are going to ravage the players union. The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) has a well-earned reputation as wuss.
The union was formed in 1956. Original demands included a minimum wage for players, per diem pay, and paychecks while players were injured. The names of union organizers sound like roll call at the NFL Hall of Fame: Don Shula, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, and Norm Van Brocklin. In due time a majority of players signed union authorization cards.
Does not surprise that the owners refused to meet with them. Thus began a going-to-court maneuver that would be repeated for decades. The NFLPA filed an antitrust suit against the league. Avoiding technicalities, the union won in court thus causing the NFL to agree to provide insurance, pension plan, and a salary floor for players. However, owners did not sign a CBA or recognize the union.
It wasn’t until 1968, after an 11-day strike/lockout, that the union was recognized by NFL owners and signed its first CBA. Recognition and some new money into the pension fund was all they got.
There was another mini-strike in 1970, went off during training camp. The union gained little (players got a bit more money, the right to independent arbitration, and the right to use their agents when bargaining with clubs). Another CBA was negotiated in 1977. Skipping over years of litigation, we come to the 1982 strike, which was real, in season, and lasted almost two months. Players shut down the NFL. The league played no games for eight weeks.
The players wanted 55 percent of the gross revenues. At the time the average NFL salary was $92,000, lowest of the four major professional sports. Players settled for slightly improved benefits and the right to access all player contracts.
That CBA expired on August 31, 1987, and this time the owners were ready. The NFL hired replacement players, or scabs, depending on your point of view. Games were televised, the same coaches coached, same refs blew whistles, same television announcers announced, plus all the games counted in NFL standings. True, the quality of football sucked, fewer people tuned in and showed up, but what there was, was enough. Meanwhile, NFL owners were making more money than ever since they continued to receive their television checks while paying replacement players pennies on the dollar. During this strike, 89 regular NFL players crossed the picket line, including Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Roger Craig, Randy White, Mark Gastineau, Steve Largent, Marc Wilson, and Doug Flutie.
Players voted to go back to work on October 15, having gained nothing, not even a CBA. Which saved their collective butt. The NFLPA filed a lawsuit. They lost that lawsuit, declared they were no longer a union, reformed as a professional organization, filed another lawsuit — an antitrust suit — claiming the NFL was an unlawful conspiracy in restraint of trade. They won. The players association reformed itself into a labor union and signed a new CBA with the NFL. This was 1993.
Which brings us to today. That CBA has been extended five times, last time was 2006. The contract expires on March 3.
The owners want to add two regular season games. They want to keep another $1 billion off the table, not to be counted in the money pile labeled “Total Revenue.” Players would still receive 60 percent of the total revenue, but countable revenue would come from a pile that is $1 billion smaller. An easier way to think of it is the players would take an 18 percent pay cut while playing two more games a year.
There are 32 NFL franchises, 29 have stadiums that are 75 percent or more publicly financed. Owners are guaranteed television money whether the NFL has a 2011 season or not. Owners claim they are going broke but won’t let anyone look at their books.
Meanwhile, the union’s strike fund consists of advice from their president, DeMaurice Smith. He’s told members to save 25 percent of their salaries. It appears the union’s only real strategy is to rely on the courts.
From a worker’s perspective, the courts aren’t what they used to be.