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For once, players have leverage in NFL labor matters

Commissioner Roger Goodell, left, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones talk after leaving the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building in Washington.

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Commissioner Roger Goodell, left, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones talk after leaving the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building in Washington.

This morning, the 2011 NFL season is officially in jeopardy.

And that's regrettable.

In the coming weeks, the news will be about grievances, injunctions, restraining orders and lawsuits.

And that's disappointing.

At the final hour, it was the players of the NFL who thumbed their noses at team owners.

And that's … oddly amusing.

Make no mistake, this is serious business, and it has huge ramifications for the NFL, for players, for television networks, for parking attendants, for bar owners, for franchise employees and for every fan who puts aside a significant amount of life's passion for their favorite team.

But I can't help but feel that NFL owners might have gotten what was coming to them this time. That has nothing to do with being pro-union or antiestablishment. It has nothing to do with siding with the millionaire proletariat or conspiring against the billionaire elite.

This has to do with bullies getting their comeuppance.

And trust me, NFL owners have been bullies from the time they ordered their first limo. They are bullies while getting tax breaks to build stadiums. They are bullies while forcing personal seat licenses down the throats of fans. And for decades, they have been bullies in labor negotiations.

Just the way they handled this collective bargaining agreement should tell you that.

First, it was the owners who opted out of the current CBA. In essence, they picked this fight. Then they tried to fix the fight by covertly cooking the TV contracts so they would have access to $4 billion in case of a lockout in 2011. And finally, at the last minute on Friday, they lowered all of their outlandish demands, fully expecting the union would be grateful to accept lesser rollbacks instead of a true labor war.

Except, this time, the players stood up to the bullies.

By decertifying, the union set the stage for individual players to bring antitrust lawsuits against the NFL, which 10 players did Friday. In response, the NFL is sure to challenge the decertification as a sham. And there will be calls for both sides to return to negotiations before the legal maneuvering goes too far.

But putting the matter into the legal system was the only legitimate weapon the players had, because the NFLPA has never been rock solid. Their careers are too short and membership too large to expect complete solidarity. A pair of strikes in the 1980s pretty much proved that by ending far short of union goals.

And that seemed to be what owners were counting on this time. Instead, the players decided to call management's bluff.

Now maybe the owners were ready for this. Like the crooks in Ocean's Eleven, they knew exactly how their prey would respond to a threat and, right now, are three steps ahead. No doubt, the owners are already rolling out their own court remedies.

But they have to at least be a little nervous.

When the players tried something similar in the 1990s, U.S. District Judge David Doty ruled in their favor, which led to the current system of free agency. Judge Doty also sided with the players last month when the owners tried to sneak past with their bogus TV deal.

This doesn't mean Doty, or any other judge, will rule with the players again — and it doesn't mean the NFL can't appeal any ruling — but it does set the stage for some interesting courtroom scenes. And it might threaten the legality of the draft.

In the end, I have no desire to see any of that. Truthfully, I don't even have much sympathy for the Players Association. Let's face it. We're not talking about coal miners or cops or teachers or cabbies.

A ton of players are grossly overpaid. I have no problem saying that. Even in a brutal sport, even with short careers, even with America's fascination with football, there are too many players getting ridiculous money just because they hit the genetic jackpot.

Still, there was something obscenely underhanded about the way NFL owners spent years plotting for this battle. And their resistance to open their financial books is a pretty good indication their cries of woe are nonsense.

Look at it this way:

NFL owners have a salary cap, which puts them ahead of Major League Baseball. They do not guarantee player contracts, which puts them ahead of baseball, basketball and hockey. They do not have to worry about arbitration, which also puts them ahead of baseball. They use the NCAA as their minor-league system, which puts them ahead of hockey and baseball.

They have been, for the past few decades, the most popular and wildly profitable sport in America, bringing in more than $9 billion a year.

And none of that was good enough.

So now we have the first honest-to-goodness labor war in the NFL in nearly a quarter-century.

And, as before, you are in the cheap seats watching wealthy men arm wrestle for billions of dollars.

For once, players have leverage in NFL labor matters 03/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 11, 2011 11:14pm]
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