In Coming NFL Labor War, Remember That Players Bear All the Risk

When there is a work stoppage in sports, it's almost always blamed on the players. But the 2011 season, if it isn't played, will be because of an owners' lockout, not a players' strike.
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If Peter King's piece in Sports Illustrated about the coming labor war in the NFL is any indication, we're in for (not surprisingly) a long season of distortion and bias on behalf of owners. King is not willfully biased -- he attempts to be balanced in his presentation of the players' and owners' positions about a new collective bargaining agreement, with the current one set to expire in 2011. But there are at least five ways in which King's approach reflects and reinforces larger habits of sports journalism when it comes to owner/player disputes.

1) it's billionaires vs. millionaires. King doesn't use this terminology explicitly, but his focus on the huge salaries of high first round draft picks is of a piece with that larger frame. And that frame leaves the impression that all we're really talking about is a bunch of wealthy people arguing about money. But the two sides are not really comparable. Yes, there are many wealthy players in the NFL, but the vast majority will not be for most of their lives.

If they stick on NFL rosters for a full season or more, they make great salaries by normal standards. But the average NFL player won't last four years in the league and this is, in itself, a misleading figure, because there are plenty of players who last 10-15 years. So, if the average player tenure in the league is 3.6 years, as King reports, the median tenure of an NFL player, which is a much more relevant gauge of the life of a typical player, is less than that figure implies.

The media (and the owners) spend a lot of time focusing on the salaries of players like Sam Bradford and Albert Haynesworth. But for every Haynesworth or Bradford, there are dozens of players who may make the league minimum for the short duration in which they play in the league. And given the significant long-term health problems that many NFL players face, the impact of those problems on their job prospects, the bills they owe, those few years of good earnings can evaporate quickly. No NFL owner is ever going to be out on the street. By contrast, NFL players do find themselves there (remember Hall-of-Fame center Mike Webster?).

In sum, every single owner is insanely wealthy by any reasonable standard and will remain so for the rest of their lives. The same cannot be said of many players.

2) But it's much worse than the simple fact that the majority of players who put on an NFL uniform at some point will not last in the league very long nor make a ton of money.

One central justification under capitalism for rewarding some people with great wealth is the risk they take to achieve that wealth. That risk, while pursued for the sake of self-interest, contributes to a greater good in the form of innovation and wealth creation. No such risk accrues to NFL owners, however. Once you are granted a franchise, you are granted a license to print money. Incompetent owners may cost their team wins on the field, but they will still make a killing off the field.

NFL revenues run to $8 billion a year and, as Forbes magazine frequently points out, many other benefits redound to owners of sports franchises, even if those benefits don't show up on franchise balance sheets. King writes that it's a burdensome new reality for NFL franchises that they have to finance new stadiums on their own, rather than have taxpayers pay for them. Only in the outrageously entitled world of the super-wealthy would it be burdensome that rather than being handed a billion dollar asset, they might actually have to pay for it themselves. And Jerry Jones' new stadium, for example, was built with an estimated quarter of a billion dollars in public funds. Furthermore, if building new stadiums weren't a profitable endeavor in the long run, let me assure you that teams wouldn't be building them in the first place.

The stadium financing issue aside, the risk in the NFL is all on the side of the players. They are the ones who exist in an intensely competitive market for talent. And they are the ones who put their bodies on the line everyday. It's the players, not the owners who, in football especially, but to lesser degrees in other sports, risk the possibility of a lifetime of pain and discomfort or, as the evidence about the long-term effects of brain trauma increasingly shows, depression and suicide (and those realities the NFL spent many years denying).

Rutgers' Eric LeGrand, paralyzed from the neck down Saturday night in an on-field collision, is only the latest reminder of this simple, indisputable fact: the risk is all on the side of the players. All of it. The owners cannot lose and they don't lose. Period. The players can lose catastrophically. Remarkably, while King does discuss the players' concerns about pensions and health care for retired players, he fails to mention the long-term health consequences from playing football, as if that has no relevance to the players' views about much of the league's revenue they're entitled to.

3) King notes that the owners want to re-structure the revenue-sharing arrangement with the players. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, the players receive sixty percent of total revenues. Only that's not really true. According to King, of the $8 billion in revenue to be shared with the players, $1.4 billion is currently "exempt." Using those figures, the players receive 60% of $6.6 billion, which comes out to just under $4 billion. In other words, the players receive just under half of "total" revenue. This isn't good enough for the owners because, well, it's never good enough for the owners. King says that the owners would like, among other things, to increase the exempt fund to $2.4 trillion. If that were the case, players would end up receiving roughly 40% of total revenues, assuming they continued to receive a 60-40 split of non-exempt revenue. Notably, in describing the revenue distribution system, King writes "...after some excluded fees, [players receive ] 60% of the total football revenue earned." Note how $1.4 billion, which the owners want to bump to $2.4 billion, has been reduced to "some excluded fees."

And remember, there are about 1600 players. There are 32 owners. Yes, I know the owners pay other employees. Cry me a river.

4) King also passes along the owners' argument that the high percentage of revenue sharing that goes to the players creates a disincentive for the owners to work harder to find alternative sources of revenue since, presumably, having only $4 billion to divvy up among themselves, as opposed to $5 billion dampens their collective entrepreneurial spirit. This is garbage, of course. For one thing, it's worth mentioning that sports media complain constantly about players' guaranteed money, under the presumption that guaranteeing players' salaries creates a disincentive for them to try very hard; that only more modest -- and revocable -- wages would properly motivate them. Of course, for owners, the opposite is true. Handing them four billion dollars isn't enough (and remember, that's four billion clear of players' salaries). They need more money before they can be induced to really try hard to make more money.

This is a staggering and indefensible double-standard.

5) The owners win when media focus on things like the rookie wage scale, 60% revenue sharing, and the like. The owners lose when media point out that only the players are putting their lives and bodies on the line in a cauldron of intense competition. The reality is that owners of sports franchises are, in many cases, spoiled brats who expect to make impossibly large sums of money by dint of the fact that, since they are already rich, they are entitled to become richer still. They assume virtually no risk, earn massive sums of guaranteed money regardless of the product they put on the field and still feel a need -- with the indispensable aid of Commissioner Goodell -- to distort basic facts about the nature of sports economics and their own profitability.

As I wrote a few years ago, in the context of growing evidence of the devastating long-term impact of traumatic brain injury on retired NFL players, this is especially indefensible:

I understand where this anti-player bias in discussions of contracts and sports business comes from. It's the athletes, not the owners, with whom we identify (or want to). It's the athletes whose circumstances most fans want to relate to. And given these realities, it's the athletes who are the focus of fans' ire. After all, how could a pro athlete, making millions of dollars, with gorgeous women throwing themselves at him all because he gets to play a game he loves ever complain about anything? Countless millions would kill to be able to do what the professional athlete does and, it often appears, takes for granted. And from chicken-processing to meat-packing, there are groups of workers in this country toiling for a pittance, often sacrificing life and limb while their bosses reap huge profits. I get that.

But comparing professional athletes to other workers is not the proper context for reporting on and analyzing labor-management disputes in sports. The question is simply who is more deserving of the spoils to be divided between players and owners: the players, or the owners? All you have to do is see Dennis Byrd hobbling painfully through his life fourteen years after his last game to answer that question. There is no more spoiled or coddled group in America than owners of major sports franchises. Already impossibly wealthy, they insist on every edge, every break, to guarantee their profits, all while telling their players, the only ones making real sacrifices and taking real risks that they, the players, should be grateful for what they have.

If an ordinary Joe wants to tell a Haynesworth or a Matt Leinart or a Terrell Owens that they should just shut up and play - fine. But coming from a sports owner: No dice. They're simply not in a credible position to make such judgments. And, sports media ought not to write as if they are.

And remember one more thing -- when there is a work stoppage in sports, it's almost always blamed on the players. But the 2011 season, if it isn't played, will be because of an owners' lockout, not a players' strike. And in keeping with their true nature, the owners have announced that, if there is a lockout, they will stop paying for players' health insurance, though they are still estimated to receive an estimated $1 billion in TV revenue next year, regardless of whether a game is played. Charming, I know.

The bottom line here: Peter King has done a disservice to a well-informed public discussion about the real issues at stake in the upcoming CBA negotiations, indirectly shilling for the owners, who don't need anymore unwarranted favorable coverage. Unless he really is a shill, he ought to know -- and do -- better.

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