The Biggest Staring Contest in Sports

Staring at a midnight expiration date for the current collective bargaining agreement, the NFL and NFLPA agreed Thursday to a 24-hour extension. Player transactions (releases, signings, extensions, etc.) still freeze at 11:59 Thursday night, but now the two sides have another day to negotiate or seek decertification of the league. Should that happen, the NFL Players Association has already confirmed that Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and the Patriots’ Tom Brady and Logan Mankins will be among the nine name plaintiffs in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL.

You know what the best thing about arbitrary deadlines is? If you don’t like them, you can just set new ones. We shouldn’t be overly surprised by this bullshit “extension,” nor should we take it as a sign of progress. The CBA could expire tomorrow, or another “extension” could be granted. The NFL and NFLPA can keep stalling as long as they want, because there isn’t really an agency that can compel them to do anything. And given the choice between extension and capitulation, the NFLPA would obviously choose extension. Every day the current CBA is extended is another day players have access to team facilities and health care for them and their families. The owners, meanwhile, don’t really lose ground by extending, so they’re happy to do so as well.

The two sides fight over a series of small issues, and one big one. The small issues include the proposed 18-game regular season, a new wage scale for rookies, and more benefits for retired NFL players. But the big issue is revenue sharing – how much of the league’s total revenue is initially given to owners to help cover costs such as stadium maintenance. Currently, owners get about $1 billion of the NFL’s $9 billion in revenues “off the top.” Now, they want another billion. The players want a bigger cut and more fiscal transparency by owners and the league.

Neither side wants to back down from this issue, because the potential power shift could have even longer-lasting effects than the revenue shift. If the owners back down, it will embolden the NFLPA. Say what you will about the way the MLB Players Association has dealt with the steroids issue, but it is undeniable that baseball players enjoy far greater earning potential and union protection. Given how easily MLB suspensions are reduced, one might argue that the MLBPA is more powerful than the MLB. That’s great for the players, bad for the owners, and fans are left in the middle, confused. Owners and the NFL don’t want to see the NFLPA become like the MLBPA. Conversely, if the NFLPA can’t flex its muscles with its new director DeMaurice Smith and president Kevin Mawae, when will it ever? Hence the staring contest.

Ultimately, the players have far more to lose than the owners. Should a lockout occur, a scab league will likely take its place, since the stadiums will still be there, the players just won’t be allowed in. Anybody who watches the United Football League, Arena Football League or Canadian Football League knows two things: there are some pretty good football players not in the NFL, and they don’t make nearly what their brothers in the NFL do. Owners could easily build cheap teams of B+ players. It won’t be NFL football, but it will give the owners enough bang for their buck to make it worthwhile. Some players in other leagues may resist, but many won’t turn down the offer of better facilities and far better salaries. These are still family men, after all, and players who once dreamed of playing in the NFL. Now, they can.

Yes, the NFL will suffer a blow to its image, just as the MLB did after the 1994 strike (it took the McGwire-Sosa home run race to restore its popularity). But the NFL will eventually recover.

The players, however, might not. They’ll lose money – approximately $140 million is due in bonuses and other compensation to about 74 players – and, worse, they’ll lose a year. The average shelf-life of an NFL player is just three years. Much of that is due to the wear-and-tear of the season. But at least a small portion is also due to the limited number of years a player has when he can perform at an elite level. The players who are in their mid-20s will be fine. But anybody 29 or over is probably nervous about giving up a year, especially when nothing in the NFL is guaranteed. A year later, doesn’t that hair look just a bit grayer? Don’t those knees feel just a bit creakier? Doesn’t the future look just a bit darker?

On the flip side, the ultra-young should also fear a lockout. It appears that there will still be a draft, but without a collective bargaining agreement, contracts can’t be signed. And then the draftees will enter into a quagmire of signing rights and earning potential. Meanwhile, a year will go by and a new batch of college students will get in the game. If teams don’t retain signing rights to 2011 draftees, then suddenly all those rookies will be competing for jobs not just against each other, but also against the 2012 draftees, who aren’t a year removed from competitive play. Every 2011 draft-eligible quarterback that breathed a sigh of relief when Stanford’s Andrew Luck didn’t declare will suddenly turn white at the thought of having to compete against him for a contract.

All of this means that the NFLPA will likely blink first. The key to negotiations is being able to walk away, and the owners are just more comfortable with walking away than the players. It’s a sad situation when management beats down labor, but without the support of the fans, the NFLPA just doesn’t have the backing to pull the kind of power move necessary to secure a more player-friendly CBA.

The current CBA is terrible, and if the owners get their way, the next one will be as well. The NFLPA can stall all they want with extensions, but ultimately, the rich will just get richer.

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