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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

There's unrest aplenty on the NFL labor front

The league and players' union are girding for a possible lockout next year, and it isn't just posturing. The issues are divisive, the impediments to a new collective bargaining agreement are real, and both sides appear dug in.

March 13, 2010|Sam Farmer

It's a fight between millionaires and billionaires, so it's not something that's going to elicit much sympathy from everyday Americans.

But the dispute between NFL players and team owners could result in a lockout in 2011 — the first labor meltdown since the 1987 strike — and that would certainly grab the attention of football fans.

As the NFL Players Assn. conducts its annual meetings in Hawaii this weekend, and owners prepare to convene later this month in Orlando, Fla., the two are on opposite sides of the actual and philosophical map.

By asking and answering his own questions, Times NFL writer Sam Farmer looks at what both sides want, and what's keeping them apart.

What's the dispute about?

No surprise here: money. Owners believe players have gotten too much of it under the current collective bargaining agreement, struck in 2006, and that they haven't shouldered enough of the financial risk of "growing the pie" with new stadiums, NFL.com, NFL Network, international games and the like.

Is there extra pressure on the two leading men, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith?

Yes. Each is making his debut as the No. 1 negotiator on a CBA, and each has to convince his constituency that he fought hard and left nothing on the table.

Both Goodell and Smith have to live up to the legacies of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and former union head Gene Upshaw, who presided over a long era of labor peace and unparalleled prosperity.

Smith faces the pressure of possibly being the NFLPA leader who gave back financial gains Upshaw made in the last negotiations, or being the person in charge when labor peace ended.

What got them to this point?

Four years ago, owners were facing a similar deadline, and, in the 11th hour, agreed to a CBA cobbled together by Tagliabue and Upshaw.

Owners agreed to that deal but almost immediately regretted it. They saw it as heavily lopsided in favor of the players. In the spring of 2008 — at their earliest opportunity — they unanimously opted out of that deal, setting the current countdown in motion.

In every other case before this, the labor deal was extended before the disincentive of an uncapped year was reached. Not this time. The deadline passed last March 5, and there is no salary cap for this season.

What do the players want?

They feel the status quo is fine, and they certainly don't want to take a pay cut, especially considering how the game's popularity has skyrocketed over the last 20 years. The average NFL career lasts a little more than three years, and those players could very well wind up with injuries they'll feel for the rest of their lives. They want to make their money while they can.

Owners might be able to create more revenue by growing the league, but what percentage of the players will still be around to realize those gains?

Not only that, but players see franchises that were bought for, say, $200 million now valued at $1 billion or more. If and when those franchises are sold, that money will go straight into the pockets of the owners, not the players.

Are there other issues?

Yes, although most relate directly to how the money is distributed. Some of the "biggies" are the future of the salary cap, a rookie pay scale, benefits for retired players, blood testing for human growth hormone, and the possibility of expanding the regular season to 17 or 18 games.

Are owners demanding that players take a pay cut?

Not in the way you might think. Imagine a bucket called Total Football Revenue, into which a percentage of virtually all NFL revenue goes. Out of that $8 billion in annual revenue, $1 billion is removed for the teams' operating expenses. Under the salary cap — which is not currently in effect — the players got 60% of that remaining $7 billion, and the teams got the other 40%. Now, the owners are asking for an additional $1.3 billion (called an expense credit) to come off the top before the players get their cut. The owners are arguing that the money will be used to grow the game, and because the revenues will be higher, the players won't end up taking a pay cut.

The league says expenses for franchises have risen faster than revenue under the current agreement and that the economics must be adjusted. One owner told The Times that the league considered starting an NFL retail chain, but scrapped the idea because it couldn't take the economic risk.

"NFL player compensation has almost doubled in the last decade because of investments made by the clubs," the league said in response to a union memo criticizing the owners' current proposal. "If we continue to invest and grow, current players will have higher compensation, former players will have higher benefits, and fans will enjoy a better game."

Basically, the players are saying, tell us how much you're making and prove to us you need that extra money for expenses.

Do the players know what the owners are making?

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