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A tale of lawyers, lovers and the labour dispute


What makes the NFL the sporting powerhouse that it is today?  Many sports in their own way have star talent, excitement and glamour.  But in the world of sports, no other can compete with the level of competitive balance that the NFL has managed to achieve.  In no other sport can a 1-15 team turn itself into a playoff team in the space of twelve months.  In no other sport can a team which was the 2nd worst in the league advance to the NFC Championship game the following year and just four years later actually win the Super Bowl.  The year of 1993 gave rise to the greatest sporting league the world has ever known - and it just might be that players AND owners after submitting to lawyer rule are unravelling the very fabric that makes this game truly special.

1993 stands as arguably the most important date in the history of the NFL as it is today.  That was the year in which true competitive balance was installed in the NFL - that was the year which fans of teams who won only two games in a single season could rise the next morning with hope realising that all is not lost and that next year truly could be different.  In 1988, the NFLPA as it was, decertified, allowing players dissatisfied with the former "Rozelle Rule" system to pursue lawsuits against owners attempting to achieve true free agency.  The defining case in the cluster of litigation was McNeil v ProFootball, Inc. (1992) which finally granted players this right.

As a reaction to this precedent, NFL owners in 1993 introduced the NFL Salary Cap in order they claimed, to regulate free agency.  The prevalent thinking amongst owners was that to grow the popularity of the league, they had to ensure and even increase the level of competitive balance between large and small market teams.  As of 1993, the NFL held a ‘holy trinity' of sorts, three staples of the sport which if managed properly would create the most competitive environment in sports: the draft, free agency and the salary cap.  And it worked.

Recently however, members of the Trade Association (NFLPA) publically have been vocal about their displeasure regarding these core foundations of the league.

Personally, I do not believe for one second that players want to abolish the draft, or to really expand the definition of ‘market freedom,' or even for that matter get rid of the salary cap.  Why would they?  In the recent past, players have openly come out and identified the salary cap as vital to the league as it prevents teams from under spending.  The players like the way the league was operating.

So this little pearl from current NFLPA President Kevin Mawae, speaking to a local Tennessee radio comes as somewhat of a surprise doesn't it?

"These young players coming up have no choice on what team they can go to...if indeed there was a true free-agent market, they could go out there and market themselves to any team they want to go to and choose who they want to play for instead of being told what team they're going to go play for the next three to five years depending on what happens with the contract length."

Ok Kev, so would this be a good thing?

"It could be, it could not be...we don't know, we've never had a system where there is no draft."

We don't know.  Indeed.

Not exactly concrete stuff to go forwards with for the NFLPA is it?  If the US government and the population had some dispute over the makeup of the constitution - government wanting to make some changes and the people resisting said changes - would it make sense to one day simply stand up from the bargaining table, scream "To hell with it!" and risk an unknown scenario where long term, you had no idea if you would be better off or worse, personally and as a collective?  Exactly!

Which makes it all the more annoying to hear Roger Goodell give credence this obvious ploy in the Wall Street Journal:

"Prior to filing their litigation, players and their representatives publicly praised the current system and argued for extending the status quo. Now they are singing a far different tune, attacking in the courts the very arrangements they said were working just fine..."

No, the NFLPA (or some incarnation) is acting like the angered lover who screams at their partner that they hate them, don't love them anymore and were happier before they came along.  They don't really mean it and are trying to hurt their partner with such harsh words and insinuations but behind closed doors, they are taking the advice of their bitter and twisted best friend*, who really is only giving advice to benefit one person...themselves.  The angered lover agrees to go along with the ploy thinking it will benefit them in the long run and their partner will cave.  Well, what happens when the partner becomes stubborn and won't apologise? The problem is that these situations do have a habit of snowballing... (*the best friend is played by a scheming lawyer).

It is clear the players are agreeing to take this stance based on the advice they are receiving from legal sources and PA people associated with the Union as a means to scare ownership or maintain leverage.  However, it is this cerebral legal involvement which is really worrisome in many ways.  How far do the players take the advice they are receiving?  Consider these comments from Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and Senior ESPN writer:

"With three player representatives from each team, brilliant legal representation, and continuing updates from DeMaurice Smith, the last thing any NFL player needs is outside lawyers second-guessing decisions and strategies."

He is of course commenting on the increased number of legal firms attempting to take advantage of the current situation for their own financial gains, by offering ‘lesser' players a seat at the bargaining table because their reps may not be doing them justice.  What many don't see is that these lawyers want the NFLPA to continue to operate as a trade association, since doing so would allow them to individually represent players in lawsuits against the owners in a cash grab for the lawyers.  Under the NFLPA system, players are represented as a collective by a few select lawyers.  Once disbanded, they require individual representation.  Imagine the look of glee on the face of a lawyer when 1500 clients come onto the market and you have potential access.  Muson offers advice to players who are offered representation from law firms:

"Here's a tip for players who find these notes in their email. When you discover that it's a note from a lawyer offering to help, find the delete button and use it."

And that's coming from a lawyer!

Surely players and owners can open their eyes and understand that this problem will not be solved by legal involvement - surely they can find a reasonable alternative?  Well, instead of applying their Harvard Degrees and Wonderlic scores to find an internal solution, the respective parties are too distracted by trying to appear sympathetic to the common fan - trying to win their own Super Bowl of sorts...that of the opinion of the common fan.

As Goodell illustrates in his article:

"Do the players and their lawyers have so little regard for the fans that they think this really serves their interests?"

It's the use of that word which appears in every interview with everyone associated with this dispute - the one which has no place in these discussions - "fans."

Goodell unnecessarily references us, the fans, in his article.  Speaking yesterday in an interview with ESPN, DeMaurice Smith says:

"This is just not good for our fans. It's not great for our players. To be in a world where guys are showing up because they want to play football and they're being told to go home...I'm not sure it's the right way to treat our fans."

So, apparently preventing players from working out at a facility is not the right way to treat the fans!  I am not seeking to take any sides in the current labour dispute as I blame both parties for allowing this absolute mess to develop in the first place.  In my opinion, the current state of affairs has descended into the type of political verbiage associated with local elections and such, where name calling, blame shifting and general clamour for popularity has taken priority over actually securing a good labour deal that ensures the continuing success of the NFL.  The fans are simply being used to garner favour in what the league and NFLPA seem to believe is a race for opinion, where the winner is perceived in the eyes of the NFL fan.

Well, we may be on a path where the destination is such that there are no winners, only losers.  How far this goes depends on the depth to which legal involvement proceeds.  While the NFL and its players argue publicly, the divide between the two parties is being increased - filled with legal counsel and agent involvement primarily concerned with lining their own pockets.  Is it really that difficult for ownership to realise the players do not want to go the legal route?  Is it not transparent to the players that agents want an open free agent market and no salary cap and certainly no rookie cap?  Is it not abundantly clear to everyone that if this continues and the NFLPA is not reformed, that the league will littered with lawsuits from individual players? Yeah, the lawyers don't want that do they?

Perhaps it is not clear to owners and players since they seem more concerned about winning the court of public opinion than striking this deal.  They need to remove lawyers and agents from the equation.  They need to stop talking to the media.  They need to chain themselves into a room and NOT come out until a deal is done.  Because while neither side may want the removal of some of the core foundations the modern NFL is build upon, continuing to be led by lawyers and distracted by the glare of the media is not going to end well, and it is the game that will suffer.