It’s an odd twist to history. Major League Baseball sits just over a year from the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement with nary a whisper of baseball seeing a strike or a lockout.
My how times have changed.
But, if you are following sports labor across the other Big-4 sports, you’ll see that the NFL and NBA are far from dancing cheek to cheek with their respective player unions. A joint statement released on Weds. read that the NBPA and the NBA held another bargaining meeting that was both cordial and constructive.” The statement went on to say that the sides “agreed to continue the dialogue, and during the three-hour meeting, a number of issues were identified that will be addressed in smaller groups leading up to the next bargaining meeting."
For the NFL, the sides are still far apart. The last bargaining session was August 14 and in an interview with NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, it was said that no bargaining sessions are in sight.
Throughout the interview that was the basis for my article Weds. on Forbes SportsMoney (see NFLPA President Kevin Mawae Sees Players Unified And Ready to Battle a Lockout) common themes that have echoed through Major League Baseball’s labor past were said over and over. As I asked questions, in the back of my head the quote from The Life of Reason by philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Indeed, the situation between owners and players in the NFL are eerily close to MLB’s past. The owners are looking for “givebacks” – an 18 percent reduction in the amount of league revenue that the players currently get. The 59.6 percent to the players far surpasses MLB’s 53 percent (although, MLB’s includes revenues associated to minor league contracts that get the total closer to the NFL’s). The players aren’t willing to budge, and with it, the sides are currently far removed from reaching a deal. With the NFL, there is some time (just over 6 months) to hammer out a deal, but unlike the state baseball finds itself in now, compromise may only come under pressure of a deadline.
As I wrote for Forbes, a key issue may simply be the perception of the sides.
But, the fundamental issue between the sides is one of partnership. The players and owners need to see themselves as equals. In discussions with union leaders for Major League Baseball – a league that has had incredible labor strife as late as 1995, but has since been able to avoid it – the MLBPA has said that management now sees them as an equal partner. Mawae doesn’t view the relationship between NFL management and its players as such.
“They like to say we’re partners, but we’re not,” said Mawae. “If we were, they wouldn’t make certain unilateral decisions without us. The league sees us as nothing more than a product. I told Roger Goodell and the rest of his staff, I am one of 1,900 other players that help put money in your pocket. I am not a product. I’m a man. Without the players, you have nothing. The idea that we’re cattle and you’re the herders… that’s over with. We’re not cattle anymore”
In highlighting Mawae’s “cattle” statement on Facebook, baseball author and historian John Thorn evoked history that goes back considerably farther than the wars that the likes of Marvin Miller, Bowie Kuhn, Don Fehr and Peter Ueberroth had. Thorn quoted John Montgomery Ward in 1890:
“Instead of an institution for good, [professional baseball] has become one for evil; instead of a measure of protection, it has been used as a handle for the manipulation of a traffic in players, a sort of speculation in live stock, by which they are bought, sold, and transferred like so many sheep."
Going back to the NFL story, I ended by saying:
As is often the case, a new labor deal may not be reached until the day, or possible up to the minute that the current CBA is set to expire. The fans are the one that are caught in the middle, and given the record television ratings and the incredible revenue growth that the NFL has seen, a meeting somewhere in the middle has to come about. A protracted lockout will alienate fans, and reduce revenues over the battles that owners see as a way to grow them. Having that happen is going to have to come with give and take, something that the owners and management don’t seem eager to do right now. The players may do so, but as Mawae said, “Concessions have make sense for both sides.”
As my discussion with Thorn went back and forth (for those wondering, he was interviewed extensively for Ken Burn’s “10th Inning”, and according to Thorn, will appear most extensively in the first part that airs this coming Tues, the 28th), he waxed poetic on the comment of the fans stuck in the middle.
“League-PA conflicts are like child custody cases, with the bitter contestants paying little to no attention to the needs of the vital third party--in the sports context, the fans,” said Thorn. “In family court, a lawyer is appointed to defend the interests of the children, but in a sports conflict no one speaks for the fans, without whom professional sports could not exist.”
In this, the NFL (or any other sports league engaged in labor strife with their player unions) needs to look at what MLB has learned: rich players fighting with even richer owners has the capacity to make the golden goose constipated. The golden eggs may get laid, but not at the rate that they once were.
For the NFL, a massive money-making juggernaut, fans still suffering in a down economy are bound to shake their heads, and say, “Enough with them. I’ll entertain myself elsewhere.” Baseball figured this out. Sure, many of the fans that left came back, but the sides have understood that in keeping the peace, everyone gets wealthier in the long run.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. He is available for hire or freelance. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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