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On the NFL and Labor Unions

Before I cared so deeply about politics, I cared about the NFL. I studied Sports Business at the University of Georgia and unsuccessfully pursued employment with the NFL league office and a handful of teams for a couple of years. And though I didn’t get the jobs, I paid very close attention to the inner workings of the league (and wrote about it for an online message board that decided it wanted to expand to a source of original content). I don’t follow the NFL’s business side quite as closely as I used to, but I do still follow it and care about it. It is due to unfortunate circumstances now, though, that I feel that I can write some about the league without it seeming out of place in a blog such as this.

The NFL has not had its best week in the press. After the Saints’ bounty scandal, the league’s appeals process is coming under attack. More importantly, as suicides among disabled league retirees are publicized, the idea of a pay-to-injure scheme operating in the NFL at a time when the league faces over 50 different lawsuits made up of over 1,000 former players claiming that the league did not do enough to protect the players, a question is arising as to whether or not the league is capable of continuing on while keeping its players safe. Many people are calling for the league to do more to enhance player safety, reduce head injuries and take care of its retired players. However, as is astutely pointed out by Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, the league has been making such efforts for at least three years now, and the fans and players have been the ones resisting.  To further that point, I would argue that the current state of the league’s retired players, lawsuits, head trauma, suspension-appeals process, and overall public relations nightmare falls mostly in the hands of the players’ union, the NFLPA.

This may sound like a “blame the victim” argument, and I’m not even talking about the standard line that “these players know the risks and now they face the consequences.” That, to me, is an effort to ignore what is a real problem. What I am arguing is that all of these issues are subject to collective bargaining and could have already been addressed. However, the NFLPA has been asking for all of the wrong things.

In 2006, the NFL and the NFLPA went through a round of labor negotiations. The result was a deal that was widely regarded as a huge win for the players and the head of the union, Gene Upshaw. The players managed to convince the league to expand the pool of shared revenue and to increase the percentage of that revenue pool that goes to the players. All of this came on the heels of a massive new television deal that had already increased the amount of money going toward both sides. Shortly following the deal, Upshaw was unanimously re-elected as the head of the union. At that time, in April of 2007, I wrote that he should not have been re-elected due to numerous missed opportunities of the bargaining process. Included in those missed opportunities, I listed increased medical care for retirees and addressing the issue of head traumas, as well as a number of contractual issues. I also predicted an increasing divide between the players and management due to some of those issues.

You see, each of these objects is a bargaining chip. While the union put all of its chips into increased salary expenditures for the current players with a focus on the short term, it necessarily played those chips instead of diverting money elsewhere, into the longer-term goals. And while the NFL has (and is actively working on) an obligation to its players, it has finite resources, and that obligation to the players is bargained for on every level.  The players–or at least their union leadership–chose salary increases over any other such gain.

When the NFL and the NFLPA, both under new leadership, underwent their more recent and uglier round of labor negotiations in 2010-2011 much rhetoric was given to other issues, but the crux of the negotiations again boiled down to player salaries and the percentage of revenue pools, with minimal gains for retired players and very few structural changes to issues about which the players routinely complain. If I were to write a “missed opportunities” article this time around, I would have pointed out the NFL commissioner’s role as both punisher and the sole course of appeal for most disciplinary issues among the top issues. And yet, that system was maintained by the collective bargaining process, and now is likely to face legal challenges.

Twice, in 2006 and again in 2011, the NFLPA had the opportunity to sacrifice gains in current salaries in exchange for resolution on issues that now plague the league. (Note that I am not even saying the NFLPA should accept lower salaries to get these options, but simply accept smaller increases.) Twice, the union chose instead to push for more money now and less help later. So now, the league is coming under fire and the very industry through which these union members make their living may begin to decline thanks in no small part to priority decisions made by the NFLPA.

To me, this is indicative of the state of labor unions as a whole. I recently read “Take This Job and Ship It,” by Senator Byron Dorgan. In it, the fight for labor rights in this country is detailed. I was surprised to learn that using the phrase “fight for labor rights” is so literal. This was not a fight that was fought in academia or on the floor of Congress. There were riots; there was bloodshed. The fight against the most powerful was incredibly difficult and dragged out. And very few honest historians or economists would argue the fact that the rise of labor unions played a major role in building and sustaining a strong middle class and the level of consumerism needed to fuel strong growth in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

And yet, today, labor unions are on the decline and many Republican legislatures are attempting to reduce bargaining rights. Labor unions are blamed for everything from the state of education to the decline of the American auto industry. But the right to collectively bargain itself and to form labor unions should not be under attack. I would imagine that if the rounds of negotiations that take place in the auto industries or the public sector were examined as I have examined the NFL negotiations, it would not be difficult to pick out specific choices that were made by the unions that helped contribute to long-term negative outcomes.

Labor unions served such an important role in the building of the modern version of our nation, and could continue to serve an important role as we move forward. But if labor unions continue to prioritize short-term gains over the long-term health of the industry in which their members work, their role will continue to diminish and their popularity wane. Much like in the case of the NFL, it’s not necessarily that the country needs fewer unions; it’s that the country needs better union leadership with smarter priorities.

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  1. October 3, 2013 at 1:10 am

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