Really? No One Thinks NFL Owners Have a Point?
The NFL Lockout sucks. Every football fan can't stand it and just wants to see football played in 2011. But, everyone-from commentators to pundits to fans-seems to be siding with the players in the realm of public opinion. I must admit I don't understand that: really, no one thinks the NFL owners have a point?
In March, both of ESPN's top commentators, Bill Simmons and Rick Reilly, wrote scathing critiques of the owner's position and explicitly sided with the players. Simmons is a personal journalistic hero of mine but I still had to disagree: the player's desire to keep the benefits they already have certainly makes sense but it also seems perfectly clear to me why the owners are picking a fight. This is their line in the sand: NFL owners have decided to stand and fight while they still have extremely wealthy owners, a sympathetic appeals court, and a profitable enterprise. The players are getting stronger and have been each year since 1987; the owners felt they had to take a stand now or see their league end up like the NBA: bloated by guaranteed contracts, excessive player profit shares, ridiculous benefits, and declining roster quality.
The players are getting stronger and have been for over twenty years. If you don't believe me, let's review. In the mid-1980s, before the first work stoppage, free agency did not exist in its current form, there was little player movement or freedom of action, and players were paid very little. With the advent of free agency in the 1990s, player wages and freedom of movement rose but the rise was manageable-even good-for NFL owners because it helped give the league a higher profile and turned football into America's national pastime. But, in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL Commissioner and Players Association chairman were so chummy that they drafted an agreement that was unabashedly pro player. The results were striking: football kept getting bigger and fan interest continued to grow but player wages rose so rapidly that the owner's percentage profit plummeted. That is why the owners opted out of the current agreement in 2008: its tenets were far too favorable to players and created a situation where player wages rose far more rapidly than league profits because the percentage profit shares are now skewed to favor the players.
The owners knew that if they extended the current agreement-or signed another just like it-the players would grow too strong, the owners' leverage would disappear, and the NFL would never be able to take back anything from the players ever again. This is the owner's Battle of the Marne; they have been losing ground for decades even as their league has been growing and need to sign an agreement that is more favorable to them and slows the rise of player salaries. The owners fear that, without that, their league will end up bankrupt like the NBA.
So, why is the public so unsympathetic to owners? Sure they are rich; richer than any of us will ever be in a million lifetimes. But, why does that mean that they do not have the right to run a highly profitable business? The NFL is still profitable right now but both its overall profits and percentage profits have declined severely since 2005. Is it the American way to tell owners: "no, you have no right to try and restructure your employees' salaries to return to your previous level of profitability," and, "no, even though you see the current system as financially unsustainable if it is continued in the next agreement, you have no right to take a stand and try to change it?" No, absolutely not, this is a capitalist country and we believe that every businessman-even a super wealthy NFL owner-has the right to turn a profit. That is how our economy has become-and stayed-the most dominant and competitive marketplace in the world and few would dispute that: so why would we apply a double standard to NFL owners?
Certainly, the players have a claim to their profits too. You may even think they have a better case and that opinion should be respected. But, at least take a second and think to yourself: really, don't the owners have a point? Shouldn't they be able to fight for their right to turn a good profit?
Update: The owners win the latest court battle. You can read the court's opinion at Time For a Deal.
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