As sports labor wars go, NFL wrangle mere child’s play

In the entire gleeful history of sporting labor wars, where do you suppose the latest fandango featuring the almighty National Football League (NFL) and the battered cannon fodder of its players association (NFLPA) ought to rank?

It seems from here to have been child’s play compared with the baseball players’ epic walkout of 1994-95, highlighted by the cancellation of a World Series, shocking even those who’d never deigned to watch the bloody thing. Now that was truly nasty.

Although hardly more stirring – in a dumb sort of way – than hockey’s near suicidal meltdown in 2004, which the NHL owners cleverly inspired with a rather snarling lockout. That one lasted 301 days and obliterated an entire season; truly pyrrhic. To further rattle your cage, may I remind you the agreement that evolved from that astounding fiasco soon expires.

Little remembered but the most valiant labor crusade in sports history was the baseball player’s revolt in 1890 led by John Montgomery Ward, a most remarkable man. If you think Marvin Miller had it rough combating late-20th century owners with all their ante-bellum hang-ups, think of what Monty Ward and his comrades faced when they battled the rogues who owned baseball teams in the Gay Nineties. Ward’s players’ union was swiftly crushed and there would be no attempt at forming another one until Robin Roberts, another remarkable man, seized the initiative three quarters of a century later.

These were the best examples of athletes truly disporting themselves as honest-to- goodness working stiffs and of club owners willing to go to the barricades to keep them in line, with everyone paying a hefty price in he end. They were brawls reminding us of the good old days when men were men and bosses were bosses; the stuff that might have gladdened the hearts of Sam Gompers or even John L. Lewis, who had eyebrows, by the way, that were even heftier than Branch Rickey’s.

The baseball boys struck over pension benefits for two weeks in 1972. It was to that point their boldest utterance since Brother Ward’s caper. Much more seriously, they marched back to the bricks in the mid-summer of 1981 with the entire contract on the table. That strike lasted 50 days, canceling 712 games and deeply aggravating the fan base, a vital constituency that the players have never fully recovered. The stretch drive and post-season in 1981, however, were salvaged. When the messy business was reprised 13 years later, we were not so lucky.

For better or worse, baseball has the lustiest work-stoppage record. Since 1972, there have been eight major donnybrooks and countless incidental skirmishes spicing the process along the way. But since a then-unknown federal jurist named Sonia Sotomayor called an end to the madness in March 1995, the scene has been utterly serene, as Czar Selig constantly reminds us with delight. Rather than taking bows, he should have the grace to recognize his good luck at having been in charge at the right time.

Basketball’s labor moments have been relatively tame. The players have never struck although there have been owner lockouts over the years. Three were harmless ,though a fourth almost succeeded in rubbing out the ’98-’99 NBA season. There has been little attention and less sympathy given over to it, but another lockout is now in place with little movement thus far. Players who average $5.15 million a year in salary don’t command much sympathy, it seems, and the owners who are dumb enough to so grossly over-pay them get even less. They have three more months to straighten out the mess.

Until this year’s odd business, there had been only four major breakdowns in football, with two being meaningless if not downright farcical. Things got more serious with the third in 1982 when the players finally got tough, walking out in mid-season for two months, forcing the cancellation of 98 games.
The horrified owners capitulated and the NFLPA landed its first strong collective bargaining agreement. But the owners got even when the CBA came up for renewal four years later, prodding the players into a strike, then supplanting them with an army of replacement warriors. It was a major league farce, lasting a month but incurring much longer lasting bitterness. In the end, the players won as the owners finally conceded them free-agency rights.

There followed a quarter of a century of relative peace that was forged mainly by a cozy relationship between NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFLPA Steward Gene Upshaw; too cozy in the minds of both many players and owners. Thus the stage seemed set for a real bloodbath when the owners provocatively backed out of the CBA in March, and with DeMaurice Smith – a new union chief clearly not in the commissioner’s pocket – looking like a lad who might just give the owners fits. Many predicted an epic battle.

But it didn’t happen. There was plenty of legal gymnastics, lots of  tactical song and dance, much clever maneuvering by lawyers and judges, all of  it trumped by the grand posturing of the commissioner, Roger Goodell, ardently stamping himself the owners’ lackey. Some say it’s always been that way, but it shouldn’t be.

What was accomplished? Expert observers capable of a more-thorough scrutiny of the deal seem genuinely puzzled in that a firmer grip on the status quo featuring a long-term (10 years) arrangement that guarantees no changes in the profit-sharing even as the profits multiply looks like a terrific deal for the owners.

The players sought a 49 percent slice of league revenues. They got a variable slice that could range from 46.5 to 48 percent. The difference is significant when calculated in the billions. High draft picks and rookies may get less money, early on. But with a higher mandated salary cap veterans will get more, if they can survive long enough. Unrestricted free agency can now be claimed after four seasons, although the significant majority of players don’t last that long in this grueling game. Also achieved are modest increases in retirement benefits, health care provisions, pensions, protection against long term injury, and working conditions.

Such working-condition modifications are important to the players and they don’t cost the owners a dime. “Two-a-days” – those dreaded back to back workout ordeals that can be hellacious under tyrannical coaches – are abolished, and more demanding practice regimens along with full-contact practices during the regular season will now be restricted. This annoys only the game’s Neanderthals, who argue it will reduce the quality of play. But if everyone must operate under the same rules, how can it make much of a difference? Unless, that is, both those who play and those who watch mostly groove on the violence.

The goal is to make the game a little more civilized. It became clear during these proceedings that the players yearn for just such a result. The NFL injury rate is absurd. That the owners have been so slow to recognize that is scandalous. So, too, is the unwillingness of the owners and the union to meaningfully help the old-timers who made the NFL the Golden Goose it has become. There’s nothing much in this deal for them.

But it does express some awareness of the game’s dangers and the need to protect its most precious commodity – the players. It’s the cannon fodder, the grunts of the game, who benefit most, which is good because 60 percent of the league’s personnel fit that description, earning, on average, little more than the NFL’s minimum wage.

They didn’t need a lockout with all the attendent silly melodrama of a five-month work stoppage, which was hardly any kind of “stoppage” because there was no work, no practices, no games being stopped, everyone being on vacation anyway.

“What the players got, they could have had back in March,” one NFL honcho tartly noted.

Which suggests the whole thing was another case of much ado about nothing. But they have $9.3 billion to carve up this season, and if the Golden Goose goes on fattening at the rate of 10 percent annually over the next decade, that pie could swell to $25 billion.
That should keep them happy. Hopefully!