NFL Owners vs. NFL Players: Isn't It Always the Players' Fault?

It is almost time to fix blame for what some see as the impending disaster in collective bargaining between the NFL and the NFL Players Association. This week's negotiation sessions produced no results. The sport has operated brilliantly without a work stoppage for almost a quarter century. Even though the existing collective bargaining agreement does not expire until early March, the media buzzards are beginning to circle the carcass of the "once-great, but-no-longer-so" National Football League. We know for certain who will be blamed: the players.

We have had labor disputes in professional team sports since the late 1960s. Major League Baseball and its Players Association hold the record with eight work stoppages, although many were management-ordered lockouts. Their dysfunctional labor relations system changed dramatically in 2002 when the parties reached a mutually beneficial contract after all-night bargaining between Mike Weiner for the Union and Rob Manfred for baseball management. They repeated their stellar performance in 2006 and will get the chance to go three-for-three with bargaining after this coming season. They are terrific lawyers and will not allow an unnecessary work stoppage to occur.

The same cannot be said of the folks across town at the NFL, although the legal talent on each team is substantial. Both bargaining groups are led by rookies -- De Smith for the Players Association and Roger Goodell for the NFL. Smith has to show he was a worthy choice to succeed Gene Upshaw, who not only showed his talents in negotiating, but also for fifteen years as a Hall of Fame guard with the old Oakland Raiders. Goodell does not face the same political environment, but he too is on trial.

One thing for sure -- if there is a work stoppage, the fans will blame the players. They always have blamed the players by overwhelming numbers. There have been times when the players -- or, more precisely, their union -- deserved part of the blame, but fans just think the players are being greedy and that their avarice cause all interruptions in the game. They are millionaires, no? No one even thinks it is possible that the billionaire owners might be at fault.

Owners are in the sports business to make money and, like in real life, some of their investments pay off; some do not. There is no question they want to make more money, and that is understandable. The owners' demand to increase the regular season to 18 games falls into that category of "more money, more often." It is hard to evaluate whether this is a good idea or not. The Union says it will subject the players to increased risks of injury, but they are already playing a game filled to the brim with dangers to their physical and mental health, not to mention to their life expectancy. The owners will likely get these two extra games, but the Union may demand something in exchange by way of extended medical benefits that may diminish the pain.

When the baseball union was on its schedule of periodic work stoppages, the fans would always blame Marvin Miller (followed by Don Fehr) for the disruptions. I think that was based, at least in part, on the false premise that these young men were simply playing a child's game that any one of the fans could play. As John Fogarty sang: "Put me in coach, I'm ready to play today." Not only were they making millions (at least after free agency arrived in 1976), but they were doing so performing a skill every fan thought he had. On the other hand, no fan had the skill or resources to own a club. (This wrongly assumed that owners actually bought the clubs with their own money rather than with resources borrowed from a bank.)

Of course, fans cannot play Major League baseball. If they could, clubs would sign them in a second at a rate of pay more favorable to management. Hitting a curve ball during the 1/1,000th of a second when a bat strikes the ball is one of the hardest things to do in life. A fast ball reaches the plate in about 0.4 seconds. Try that sometime. Nonetheless, the fans were convinced the players were just overpaid prima donnas.

No one thinks they can play NFL football. The speed and size of the players make that prospect unappealing to say the least. The belated attention to concussions and life-long disabilities has sensitized the public to what these men go through for our entertainment. Recognizing that the average NFL football career is about three seasons may make the fans more likely to recognize that they have to get it while they can. An owner's work life, on the other hand, is much longer and much more lucrative.

As we move towards the fourth quarter of collective bargaining in football, it will still be hard for fans to blame the owners for being greedy. We still have images of a splendid Super Bowl dancing in our dreams. Management does have a terrific chief negotiator at the table, Jeff Pash, the long-time General Counsel of the League. He will push hard, but he too is a realistic bargainer. I stand by my prediction that we will not lose any meaningful games as a result of this tete-a-tete. If we do, then we should blame both sides for "bad bargaining" and penalize them 15 yards and loss of down.