CBA good for owners, not for players

Posted Aug. 01, 2011 @ 4:09 p.m.
Posted By Hub Arkush

It's all over now, especially the shouting, as all 32 NFL team training camps are open, the NFLPA has recertified as a union, the 2011 league year will begin on Thursday, Aug. 4, and a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that will span the next 10 years will be finalized very shortly thereafter.

Was the lockout — which spanned 4½ months and cost hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs and millions of dollars — worth it? Collateral damage is always painful and ugly, especially to those who suffer it, but the reality is that sometimes it is necessary and this appears to have been one of those cases.

The deal the owners and players struck will bring pro football more than just 10 years of labor peace. It will allow a level of cost certainty to management that will practically guarantee its ability to generate dramatic profits and a competitive balance for fans that will allow far and away the top entertainment in America to continue to grow and thrive. The combination of those two will generate significantly more revenue and jobs than those that were lost this past summer. It's still horrible for anyone who got hurt, but that's why collateral damage is considered an acceptable price to pay for the greater good.

The significant ramifications of the new deal are now clear. The owners got about a 4 percent increase in their share of all revenues the game will produce over the next 10 years. They retained the ability to restrict the movement of the game's top free agents for up to three years with franchise tags, and the ability to control their first-round draft choices for up to five years without the use of a franchise tag. Owners got a new rookie salary cap, and a significant portion of those savings will go to fund improved benefits for retired players that otherwise might have come out of the owners' pockets. In 2013 the owners will again be able to try to convince the players to add two more regular-season games, Roger Goodell or his successors will continue to have the authority to enforce a personal conduct policy on players with impunity and there will no longer be judicial oversight of the CBA.

The players got the floor raised on the salary cap, which will require all teams to spend much closer to the maximum allowed and dramatically lessen the gaps between how much the teams each actually spend in a given year on salaries and bonuses, theoretically rewarding players stuck with lower-paying teams. Reductions were made in the number of offseason workouts, OTAs, training-camp two-a-day practices and in-season practices in pads allowed. And it is believed the players will get significantly enhanced benefits, including access to health insurance for life, but those are the details still being worked out and which couldn't be finalized until the union had recertified.

Many have tried to spin this as a fair deal for both sides and one in which both the owners and the players gave and took. Whether it's fair or not is hard to say. Perhaps the last CBA in 2006 swung too far in favor of the players and some giveback was necessary? This deal is going to make both sides filthy rich, so perhaps it is good enough. I have no problem with all the fellas hugging it out and heaping praise on each other after all the bile they aimed at each other all summer long. But the facts are that the owners primarily took and the players gave and gave in this new deal, and in the end there is a clear winner and a clear loser.

The best evidence of this is found on the final page of the 25-page power point that the players' executive committee prepared for its 32 player reps to try to convince them to accept the deal. It listed six bullet points of things the owners had asked for that they didn't get. Nowhere did the players objectively measure their new deal in terms of what they gained and what they lost. Instead, they sold it to themselves based on how they'd limited their losses. I'm sorry, but I don't accept that losing a lot as opposed to losing a whole lot more can make someone a winner.

Depending on how much and how quickly revenues grow over the next 10 years, the percentage of total revenue the players gave back to the owners is going to put between $4 billion and $8 billion in the owners' pockets that would have gone to the players under the old deal. That is a huge win for the owners and a huge loss for the players. How much worse it could have been is irrelevant.

Pro football is the only major sport in America that has franchise tags. In baseball, basketball and hockey, free agents are free agents, but not in the NFL. Franchise tags are a clear violation of the antitrust laws, and in the spring of 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court voted 9-0 that the NFL owners were not entitled to exemptions from those laws. That the owners still have those tags is a clear win for the owners and a big loss for the players.

I could go on listing the owners' gains and the players' losses, but there's really no point because in the end it will still bring us back to the fact the deal may still work for both sides. But I do think it's worth noting that the biggest loss the players suffered in this deal is a point they never even bothered to negotiate, and the why and the how of that really boggles my mind.

I was visiting with Peter Gammons the other day on a radio show I was hosting in Chicago, and he made a point that was never once mentioned throughout the 4½ months of back-and-forth between the two sides. Gammons noted the fact that the athletes who sacrifice the most during their careers, and suffer by far the most after their playing days are over, are the only players in major team sports in America whose contracts aren't guaranteed — which is evidence of the weakness of the NFL Players Association. In baseball, hockey and basketball, whatever you sign for, you get paid, every cent of it. In the NFL, players sign contracts, and then the owners use them for as long as they want, cut them whenever they feel like it and, for the most part, pay them however much of the contract they choose. How that's fair I will never understand, but it's a fact the players have apparently gladly accepted in the past and will accept for at least 10 more years, and never even tried to negotiate a change.

Here's a fact that's even more mind-boggling. Of the four major team sports — NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL — only the National Football League can say that all 32 of its teams are profitable, the NFL is more popular than any of the other three by at least a 2-1 margin and yet its players are the lowest-paid. That's right, the average and median salaries in the NFL are lower than even the NHL, dramatically lower than MLB and unbelievably lower than the NBA.

Nobody is happier than I am that the lockout is over and we are back at work. But, with so many folks telling us the new 10-year CBA is fair and both sides did a good job of getting there, I am truly perplexed. After I've looked at the facts, someone needs to explain that rationale to me again because I am at an absolute loss in trying to understand how what the players got for themselves in this deal outweighs what they don't have, and apparently didn't even ask for, and how the owners didn't kick their butts again.