Did the Players Turn Down a Good Deal?

With the news that players union decertified and the league has officially locked them out, fans are left with scores of questions. 

The two most pressing are:

Will there be football in 2011?

and

Did the Players turn down a good deal?

Let’s tackle the first one: probably.

The truth is that while a settlement would have guaranteed football in 2011, the union’s move to decertify may have accomplished the same purpose.  In a nutshell, the courts will decide.  Here are two excellent ‘what happens now’ articles.  The first explains in detail the legal maneuverings.

Most immediately, free agency won’t happen until a court order is entered blocking a lockout, or until a lockout is resolved via a new labor deal.  To the extent that fans are rooting for an outcome, they should be rooting for the players’ strategy to succeed, quickly.

If it does, we’ll have a full offseason and football while the fight shifts to the courtroom.

The second article breaks down what happens depending on whose side the courts take. 

9. Assuming there is no deal between NFL and NFLPA and assuming Judge Doty rules in favor of NFLPA — meaning the lockout would be given the red light — players would obtain tremendous leverage in negotiations. They could decertify and bring antitrust lawsuits and the league wouldn’t be able to block those lawsuits. The players, however, would likely not decertify in this situation (or, if already decertified, they would recertify), since they are reasonably comfortable with the terms of the current CBA and it would remain in effect until a new CBA is reached. In this scenario, NFL teams would operate as normal and the 2011 season would be restored — at least until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit reviews Doty’s decision.

No matter how you feel about the players or the owners, the best result for fans is that the courts side with the players, at least in the short run.  Because of the ramifications for Indianapolis as a city, my central priority is getting a 2011 season played. After that, both sides can rip each other to shreds like dogs for all I care.  Indy needs the Super Bowl revenue.

Now, to the second question: did the owners offer a good deal to the players?

The NFL says they did.  Here’s a detailed description of what was offered.  The NFL claims that it was good deal, citing things like agreeing to meet the players’ proposed cap by 2014.  Like everything on both sides, statements must be filtered. 

For one the NFL’s claim that they acquiesced to a 16 game season is completely disingenuous.  They agreed to hold off for two years (which they had to do anyway), but revisit the issue. In other words, they agreed the issue didn’t have to be settled now.  That is hardly the same thing as a concession.  They merely tabled the debate for a future point in time, without altering the time line for its eventual adoption.

At the end of the day, the biggest sticking point becomes money.  The owners’ position is that the players had to take a cut.  They wanted $1 billion taken off the top of the revenue split with the players.  Players get 59.6% of that money, meaning the initial proposal would cost the players just under $600 million.  The players agreed to cuts (my understanding is about $200 million multiplied by 59.6% or $110 million), and the owners had moved some too, bringing the difference down from $1 billion to $650 million (of which the players would be losing around $386 million).  The owners agreed to then halve THAT number, meaning the players would have to take a total of roughly $300 million in real total cuts (around $110 that they first offered and another $190 ‘to meet halfway’). 

The NFL’s ‘best offer’ was roughly a $300 million pay cut. 

Does that sound like a good deal to you?

So, the players said, “We’ve already agreed to cuts, but we won’t do more without the financial data proving cuts are necessary.” The owners responded with promises of releasing some data, but not detailed expenses, which is what the players felt they had to have.

But that wasn’t good enough for the players. And from their standpoint, who could blame them? The NFL was asking for more money to be exempted from revenue-sharing while the league was in a time of unparalleled success. If the NFLPA was going to give owners any more revenue credits, the union felt strongly that the league had to show its hand. Show how much teams were spending (and wasting, perhaps). Over the past few days, I’ve had union officials (more than one) give me examples of how money is wasted by teams, and how some expenses that clubs claim as football expense should be personal expenses. And at the end of the day, the union simply didn’t trust that teams’ financial records weren’t riddled with such wasteful spending.

This is the point I’ve been making for months.  The bottom line is that the players simply don’t trust the owners, and given the court results from the TV deal, it’s easy to see why.  The owners weren’t willing to reveal the nature of their expenses, so the players said, “We aren’t giving up any more money”.  That’s the catch, the owners were willing to meet the players’ salary cap suggestion by 2014, but that suggestion in itself represented a cut.  The players felt like agreeing to ANY cut was magnanimous, and in the end the owners wanted more cuts.

The owners are waiving around their willingness to ‘split the difference’ and ‘meet the player’s 2014 number’ as if that meant the players were getting a fair deal. It merely meant they were offering the players a less bad deal.  Meanwhile they systematically undermined their trust with the union via a variety of childish and condescending maneuvers. The end result was a compete deterioration of the relationship between players and management.  The players felt like the owners were offering them significantly less than what they could get in court, so they sued.

While this is frustrating for everyone, it’s not the end of football…yet.  There are still big questions to be answered:

1.  Why did the owners decide to go ahead with a lockout?  This still baffles me.  The union is claiming the NFL always wanted to lock out the players.  Once they decertified, the owners no longer HAD to lockout anyone.  They could have imposed any rules they wanted to. Instead, they merely validated what we’ve always known: they want to shut things down to keep the heat on the players.  By locking out the players, the owners put themselves in a very precarious position with the courts.

2.  Will the ‘decertification’ hold? The league is claiming the NFLPA still exists and hasn’t really dissolved. They love to call it a ‘sham decertification’.  The problem is that this defense is unlikely to hold up. In fact the players are going to argue the NFL has already waived their right to even make that claim (even if the claim had merit).  The league still talks as if the NFLPA existed.  Their claim is that they are locking out the union. The union says, “We don’t exist anymore”. The league says, “Clearly you do”.  They may be right existentially, but are mostly likely wrong legally.

3. What could the long run ramifications be? Catastrophic. The players are suing against everything: the salary cap, the franchise tag, the draft and every conceivable structure the NFL has.  And they might well win.  Colts fans, there is a very real possibility the courts could declare Peyton Manning (one of the plaintiffs) an unrestricted free agent.  In fact, in the long run, that’s EXACTLY what I expect to happen.  I do not believe the NFL owners will win on any point in court.  I think the resulting decisions will destroy many of the key structures the NFL is built upon.  I don’t blame the players for the suit. If they win, it will be because the owners’ actions have been indefensible.  

4. If the lockout IS lifted (and I believe the courts will so order), what happens to Peyton Manning?  I have no idea.  I have no idea how the law suit affects his negotiations with the Colts, or if he can even negotiate at all with them, while simultaneously suing the league.  We don’t know what set of rules the league will be operating under if the courts order the lockout lifted.

The owners are going to regret their actions in recent weeks.  Even if you personally think they gave the players a great deal, the courts are not likely to agree.  The TV case alone puts the owners in a deep legal hole. It will be difficult for them to prove they have been acting in good faith, since their ‘last best offer’ still required massive financial give backs for the players.

In the end, they are risking the future structure and stability of their league for roughly an extra $190 million.  They were willing to ‘meet the players half way’, meaning they actual amount they wanted back was $190 million (on top of previous cuts by the players).  Rather than give up that money, they risked going to court where they will lose in a bloody fight that will cost them more money they ever dreamed.

It’s the height of stupidity and arrogance.

Related links:

7 Questions fans want answered

How does this affect the AFC South

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