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No one is blinking in the NFL bargaining game

Team owners are set to meet amid signs that labor fight could derail 2011 season.

October 06, 2010|Sam Farmer

Imagine if Drew Brees and Brett Favre were teammates.

For a moment, they were.

Minutes before the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings kicked off the 2010 season at the Superdome, the players for both teams stepped off the sidelines toward each other and raised one finger to the sky.

It was a show of NFL Players Assn. solidarity — a message that "we are one" — and a very public reminder to team owners that players are united in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. The labor fight threatens to derail the 2011 season.

Last week, DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA, met with the Green Bay Packers and said he sees clear signs the owners are preparing for no football next season.

As part of that visit, Packers players voted to give the union decertification approval in the event of a lockout. Several teams had already given the union their approval, among them Buffalo, Dallas, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and the New York Jets.

So what does all this mean before the owners convene in Chicago on Tuesday for their final scheduled meeting before the CBA expires in March?

Times NFL writer Sam Farmer asks and answers questions about the labor situation:

Isn't this just greedy owners vs. spoiled players? What have they got to fight about?

It's about money, of course. Owners say that to continue to grow the league, they need to sink incredible amounts of cash into things like new stadiums, new media opportunities, international games and the like.

In 2006, when their deal with the players was just about to expire, they agreed to a CBA extension they almost instantly regretted. They say it didn't adequately address the kind of investment they have to make to keep the NFL on top. As soon as they could, they opted out of that agreement.

The current CBA expires in March.

And what do the players say? Prove it. Open your books and show us that you're limping along and can't afford to pay your bills. The success of this league was built on our backs, yet we don't have guaranteed contracts, we don't get a piece of those stadiums, you don't cut us a check when that franchise you bought for $100 million sells for 10 times that. Stop poor-mouthing us.

What is this threat to "decertify" the union?

Well, first it might be helpful to define in a very basic way how labor and antitrust law factor into all of this.

Think of the big auto manufacturers. They can't get together in one room to collectively decide — or collude — to fix their prices, what they're paying employees … anything like that. That would be a violation of antitrust laws.

But there's something called the "labor exemption." If the employees get together and approach the employers as one unified body — a union — then, in order to make it simpler and more efficient for everybody, the employers can act collectively in negotiating with that union.

In the NFL, if there were no players union, the 32 teams couldn't get together and negotiate a salary cap, player benefits, or most anything else that's in the current CBA. Those teams would be in violation of antitrust law.

Why would players want to decertify?

If the CBA expires, and the sides have yet to agree to a new one, the owners can lock out the players. In that case, NFL football is kaput until a new deal is in place.

But if the union votes to decertify — or no longer act as a union — that means there is no longer a legal collective bargaining unit for the players. All of a sudden, those 32 teams are not within that labor exemption to the antitrust laws.

And if antitrust laws apply to this situation, owners cannot collectively lock out the players. That would be a form of collusion called a collective boycott, and it would expose the owners to individual and class-action lawsuits by the players. That could be extremely costly considering the real economic damages in antitrust suits are tripled.

If that happened, what would the owners say?

They would then claim the move was a "sham" decertification, saying the players didn't really decertify. If you walk, talk and smell like a union, they'd say, you're still a union, even if you call yourself a trade association or something like that. You're not allowed to decertify simply to gain leverage at the negotiating table — particularly if you're still at that table acting like a union.

Whether the decertification was sincere would be for the courts to decide.

From the players' perspective, what's the risk of decertifying?

Assuming the decertification works, that means the union has blown itself up. Anytime you blow up something with the intent of putting it back together later, there's a chance all those pieces won't fit together the way they once did.

What's the risk to the owners?

They could lose in court and wind up with the same deal they have now, or one they like even less.

Is there going to be a lockout?

I think there will be, even if it only takes place between March and the traditional start of training camps in late July.

The players want to force the issue and get a deal done sooner rather than later. The longer it drags on, and especially if players start missing paychecks, the more difficult it will be for the union to hold things together.

The owners still get TV money whether games are played or not (money they have to repay the networks, with interest) and many teams might actually be better off in the short term because they won't be paying those player salaries.

In short, the owners have a financial bomb shelter that most players don't have. But bomb shelters aren't forever.

Eventually, you have to come up and face the fallout.

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