It may be the opening of a bright NFL season but what we're really seeing is the closing of the NFL as we now know and occasionally love it. We all know the expression, “Wait 'Til Next Year”. It might be better to restate that as “Dread Next Year.” for that's probably what we should be doing. It's been widely discussed, gossip, rumoured, unsubstantiated stories have been floated about it but the consensus is that next year the NFL is going to have some form of work stoppage. Whether it's a lockout by the owners or players who don't play it all adds up to the same thing; No football for some or all of 2011. And, at base, it's all over 10%. Were I a carnival barker way back when I'd address the crowds of suckers like this, “Ten cents, ladies and gents, just ten little pennies. Less than a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread for this wonder of the world. Think about it, your kids want it, you want it and for just ten cents, almost the smallest part of a dollar it can be yours. So step right up and part with your dime, for what you're getting you'll thank me, want me to take more.....”. And that is exactly what the hoorah about next year is about, ten cents, ten pennies, one American dime. And who gets it.
The base issue is about money, who gets it, who has it and how it will be divided but that's the over arching issue that covers a variety of smaller skirmishes that obscure the main battle. For one, both sides, the FNL and the NFLPA realize that this probably the last best chance for the next several decades to solve this problem. It might be possible to nit pick some of it over a year or two but that doesn't eliminate the problem, it just postpones it and, in fact, hardens both sides in their demands. But what now? For one thing, the basic issue has passed the point on the fulcrum where it can be brought back and still save face for everyone involved. Too many postures have already been taken, too many comments have been made for this to end up with everyone coming to Jesus and kissing and making up. That will not happen.
Like it or not, and we'll get to what “it” is (keep remembering that 10%), this has also become a racial issue. When Gene Upshaw died it surprized some people that he was not replaced with another retired player but someone within the Union recognized that they didn't a player, they would need an attorney and one with some legitimate credentials (No one from the Sharpton/Jackson/Wrangel school of thought) which led to the selection of DeMaurice Smith, formerly a Federal Prosecutor to head the Union. Consider that 75% of the NFLPA members are black while 100% of the team owners are white. Also remember that the majority of the black players come from what is delicately termed a “disadvantaged background”. Read that as street smart and with loyalties more to their own group(s) than to any owner or coach. They know that without them, the NFL ceases to exist. They also know that they're part of a culture that has evolved in the past twenty or thirty years to exclude white people. As Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning editorial writer for the Washington Post said, “African Americans have developed a speech that intentionally excludes white America. It's relative to the street and the thug/”gangsta” culture that is anti white, pro black and supportive of gangs.”(Mr. Robinson is an African-American) He further adds that this applies only to the lower social-economic groups of blacks that, coincidentally, produces the greatest number of black players. These are the roots of most-not all-of the players. You will recall when there was much conversation, little of it pleasant, about the dearth of black quarterbacks. So we got black quarterbacks. Then came the issue of black coaches and, increasingly, there are black coaches. Leaving only one more step up and that's black ownership of one (or more) team(s). They're stymied here because to date no black person or group has come forward expressing a genuine interest in buying a team. Even if such a person or group did exist, no NFL team is for sale. And that brings up another difficulty: Expansion.
One of the less discussed but more intriguing ideas is that if the NFL were to expand, there would be a guarantee that a person of colour would own at least one team. It's hard to understand how it might be possible to mandate to any place that wanted a franchise just who would own it and what colour they might be. Still, the thought has crossed several minds although the reality of it is hardly credible. And right there the NFLPA has another gripe. What couldn't a black person own a franchise? What we see here is that everything becomes a negative depending on who says it and how it's said. Consider. If the NFLPA suggested that as part of expansion a team be guaranteed a minority owner, then it's fine but the NFL-having logic on their side-will disagree. Things and times change. Fifty years ago no one of any colour could envision a black President.
But now to the other side of the field. The NFL functions, as is little known, as a licensed benevolent, tax exempt entity that operates as such under IRS rules. This does not limit them and what they can do, it just means that, if they make money, it's tax free. The operant theory is that the NFL serves as the watchdog to see that owners, players, media, etc. all function in a fashion that promotes football. That's the theoretical function, the actuality is rather different and here is an area where the NFLPA would like to run interference.
The NFL decreed that no team may be corporately owned (save Green Bay) and that at least one member of any group owning a franchise must own at least 30%. In 1920 when the NFL was put together, there was a fear of monopolies such as Standard Oil or Armour Meats. By demanding multiple owners, it was thought that a more cooperative league would be the result. At that time there were only 11 teams, no NFLPA and football as such was not the dominant sport it is today. The ownership restrictions changed which is why Jerry Jones can own the Cowboys(although another entity does own the mandatory 30%). Those ninety years since 1920 have seen an uptick in their fortunes that could not have been anticipated. Prior to the depression, a good fan turn out was about 25,000 people and, remember, no radio, no television just the newspapers. At the field there was some little advertising but the revenue from that-which was mainly what was charged to hang a banner where the crowd might see it-was minimal not the gushing torrent of money it is today. Now the average crowd is 65, 000 all of whom have paid anywhere from ten to two hundred times the amount paid by a fan in 1920. Certainly the cost of everything has gone up but the entry fee isn't the only expense to the fan. Food, beverages, parking are all possible costs and none of them are small.
Which takes us to another underlying problem and that's the gush of money from advertising. As of now, other than product endorsements-and only those products sanctioned for endorsement by the NFL-all the revenue goes directly to the team which then pays the salaries of the players and staff. Some see this differently, that the reality should be that players could contract with advertisers as part of their contract with the team but receive separate monies. It's an idea whose time will probably never come but it points up the absolute necessity of advertising to not only the team, but the networks themselves. It's what creates the income stream that is the single largest contributor to the NFL. It's also the most fragile. Unlike many kinds of contracts, ad placement may be for a few as one or two games and only on one network. Obviously the various networks that now broadcast professional football (CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and the NFL network) are in close competition for the ad dollar. To attract that they have to have “the numbers” to back up the rates they charge and the “numbers” are how many persons are projected to watch a particular game. However, the networks cannot cherry pick each week which games they will broadcast, that's somewhat dictated by the NFL (although CBS and Fox each get one conference, be it the AFC or NFC) who, contractually, guarantees each team a certain amount of “exposure”. With that many networks that shouldn't be difficult but it is. Only CBS, Fox and NBC are available to anyone who has a set. The others are reliant on viewers who have access to cable or it's equivalent. You can see the problem immediately. Advertisers are less than willing to give money to those entities showing games with far fewer viewers. Even if it's the game of the year, only those with access to paid for television can watch and the fewer who watch the less product or service that's sold. More problems in that the NFL has a vested interest in getting as many viewers as possible not just for the ad dollar but to satisfy the teams.
It gets even more complicated but lets go back to that dime I mentioned earlier.
The underlying issue between the NFL and the NFLPA is that as it stands now the NFL gets 60% of the revenue and the players get 40%. (That is the team initially gets all the money but must disperse at least 40% to the players in the form of salary, bonuses, or however else they may choose to compensate them.) What the players now want is a 50/50 split. It's that simple. 10% more to one group, 10% less to another. It's actually possible that if that were the only issue with none of the underlying problems some settlement might be possible but we've passed that point as everyone has said too much about everything. As of now the average salary for a player is 1.8 million dollars a year and there are 1, 800 players. That, however, the players argue is an insignificant amount based on the time spent plus the time, trouble and danger to which they expose themselves.
Interestingly that much reviled group, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Hazard Agency) disagrees. Indeed professional sports of all sorts don't even come near the top 100 in terms of per capita death by occupation. (The leading two are farm work and mining.) They have a slightly stronger case if they suggest that their chances for long term health difficulties are greater than most but even that's a hard sell based on facts. What is not hard is that the NFLPA has done a wretched job of caring for players that have health issues that are sports related or just the sort of things that occur as we age. (It's galling to many players that O.J. Simpson gets $25, 000 per month to languish in prison. That's far more than some of them with medical disabilities get.) For what the NFLPA charges its members they should have Cadillac policies after their careers are over but that's not the case.
On the other side the owners point out that they pay for everything and the players don't even have to wash their own socks. Players receive a per diem allowance in addition to their salaries which makes little sense for when they're on the road with the team, the team is already picking up 100% of their costs. Beyond that, they also pay for the facility, insurance, grounds upkeep, transportation etc. But like the players point about the danger to which they're exposed, this point has some weaknesses. Someone will have to pay for the cost of the stadium. If the team or a school that might happen to own it or whomever, there are bills to be met. If you're going to have a team and move it from place to place it makes little sense to have them pay for their own freight when without the team there would be no reason to go.
Yet there's one group that has no say and is the bearer of the financial burden for all this and that's the fan. The person who watches at home or at the venue, buys the trinkets and promotional material sold by the NFL and the products advertised during the game. Most particularly the products advertised for at base, that's the reason anyone bothers to sponsor the game. It's the reason the teams exist and that's to sell products and services to the fans. Only in extreme circumstances is the “Fan” brought up and that's when one group or other wants to seem benevolent, inclusive of everyone. But then it's only lip service rather like “Fan Appreciation” day. It's meaningless for the people who are sponsoring it, care only that their numbers are met and if they have to debase themselves and acknowledge the fan, then they will. They won't like it as it's just another cost over ride, but they'll do it.
So where are we and where are we going? We have two groups who are divided by grounds that vary from financial to racial trying to get the upper hand which is to say the largest share. It's really hard to see how this can be settled but settled it must be. As was said earlier, this is the last chance to settle it with only modest damage to everyone. If it cannot be settled then it falls to the courts to make a decision and that could easily be one even less popular than whatever might be agreed to. Neither group wants to have an imposed settlement, but that's wht they might get. Clearly this situation, however it's resolved, will satisfy very few and the arguments will go on. It's said that you cannot have too much of a good thing but the NFL and the NFLPA are apparently attempting to prove that you can.