NFL Labor Relations, “On Any Given Sunday”


By: G. Jon Blunden

There is a popular NFL adage, “On Any Given Sunday”; it’s meaning is that in the NFL there is a very real possibility that any team could prevail in their weekly Sunday match-up. NFL players and their fans, no matter how big an underdog they might be, truly believe that their team can win. It’s what drives the players and their fans.

It is a rare individual that attains the status of a professional NFL player. Only 1696 achieve that distinction each week of the season. The talent and hard work it takes to make it to the elite status, as an NFL player is extraordinary. What is even more unique is the title of a NFL team owner. That exclusive club is limited to a privileged 32 (31 plus the publicly owned Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers). You don’t become an NFL franchise owner without having won battles in the boardroom and the courtroom.

Unfortunately the players and their union officials are in a game (CBA Negotiations) with the owners, in which they are so over matched that in this case “On Any Given Sunday” probably means that the owners will take a large television rights fee deposit to the bank on “Every Given Monday” during a labor lockout.

Just as the players practice, condition and watch film in preparation to wage war between the lines each week, NFL owners have done their version of game preparation in their offices and boardrooms week in and week out for decades. Where players and coaches draw strategies in x’s and o’s, owners strategies are drawn in dollar signs and zeros by attorneys and MBAs.

The NFL owners are far better trained and equipped in the intricacies of contract negotiations and general business acumen than the NFLPA and its representatives. While there is the occasional NFL player that finishes their on field career and goes onto success in the business world, that is the exception rather than the rule. An astounding, 78 percent of NFL players are bankrupt or in severe financial distress within two years of retirement. How many NFL franchises have filed bankruptcy in the last 50 years? Answer- Zero.

Imagine if the CBA terms were decided between owners and players on the football field by a game. More than a few owners would leave the field on a stretcher. It would be ugly indeed. In reality the CBA is being contested on the owners’ home turf, and they are not just the “All-Pro” from the current season, they are a collection of “Hall of Famers ” all playing at the same time. This game has the makings of a massacre of epic proportions.

Consider the fact that the owners have been preparing for this “game” for years. It is no coincidence that the television contracts were structured in such a way that over $4 billion (that’s a four followed by nine zeros) was guaranteed in the year that the CBA would expire. The NFLPA accused the NFL of structuring the TV contracts so owners would be guaranteed money even if there were a lockout in 2011 in exchange for lower revenue in prior seasons, when income would be shared with players. The NFLPA argued this violated a prior settlement agreement between the sides that provided the NFL must act in “good-faith” and use their “best efforts” to maximize total revenue for players.

Both sides claimed victory this week when Special Master Stephen Burbank ruled that the league improperly negotiated those television rights to the detriment of the players. The NFLPA was awarded a paltry $7 million in damages while the owners were allowed to keep the more than $4 Billion in TV revenue should there be a lockout. The question arises, if the owners improperly negotiated the TV rights to the detriment of the players, how can the owners keep nearly all of their ill-gotten gains? In civil cases, every ruling from the judge, even on the smallest matters such as the placement of a comma or the parsing of a sentence, can have a tremendous impact on the outcome. While we are not privy to the rational Mr. Burbank used to reach his decision, you can be certain that when the owners attorneys’ drafted the agreement, they paid close attention to the details. In what is the NFLPA’s equivalent of a booth review, they have appealed the decision. The NFLPA wanted the entire amount of the TV rights fees held in an escrow account, thus depriving the owners a war chest of money. That appeal will not be decided before the March 4th expiration of the CBA.
Anyway you keep score, Mr. Burbank’s ruling would have to be considered a victory for the owners.

The disproportionate power the guaranteed TV revenue affords the owners, is an offensive weapon without equal. If the owners implement a lockout at midnight on March 3rd, the NFL players lose their roster bonuses, health insurance, rehabilitation privileges, access to team facilities coaches and of course their salaries. The owners lose their payroll expense obligations for the duration of the lockout but get to keep the TV revenue. The owners could holdout for the entire season and not suffer any financial hardship whatsoever.

The disparate bargaining positions between the sides coupled with the fact that the owners have to only maintain solidarity between the 32 of them, which is not hard to do considering that 70% of all revenue is shared equally between them, versus the conflicting interests of the 1696 players all earning different amounts of money and at different stages of their careers, is a recipe for discord. If I were DeMaurice Smith I would rather be tasked with herding 1696 cats.

So while as a fan of the game, my hope is that the owners and NFLPA can come to an agreement in this high stakes game. But in this case the “On Any Given Sunday” adage does seem to be an irrational view that a win is possible. By win I mean a season not marred by labor strife and ultimately a lockout. But what do I know? I’m just a guy with a keyboard, a TV remote and an opinion.