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Game Over: Should the NFL Show Players the Money?

By Sean Gregory

 

On a recent Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C., around 25 NFL players sat in a drab conference room listening to how, in the not-so subtle opinion of the speaker, their bosses were screwing them. Though these players were veterans on the field, they were rookies in this arena. DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, was delivering a presentation as part of an orientation for new union representatives. In many respects, Smith, the lead negotiator for the players, was giving a pregame speech, and like any good coach, his tone was incendiary, his message clear: you have to be prepared for what's ahead, your opponent doesn't think that highly of you, and this may be the most important fight of your lives. "We will do everything we have to do to protect ourselves," Smith told the players. "We will counterpunch."

 

All the bluster that day was a mere prelude to what could transpire starting March 4, when the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players, which governs the business of football, expires. That day is pro-football Armageddon, and it could easily lead to the temporary halting of a thriving, multibillion-dollar business, which this weekend features two classic conference championship matches, the Green Bay Packers at the Chicago Bears and the New York Jets at the Pittsburgh Steelers.

 

Which means this year more than any other, fans had better enjoy the weekend's championship games — possibly the NFL's most exciting day, even better than the Super Bowl, given the charged atmosphere in totally partisan, often frigid stadiums. After all, there's a real chance they won't see them next year. If the league's players and owners can't sign a deal by March 4, the owners will most likely lock the players out of their facilities, and shut down the booming game of football.

 

For the owners, no football means no revenues from ticket sales and beer and soda, but no hefty salaries to pay for star players. And since the owners signed remarkably favorable TV deals that give them money regardless of whether or not games are played, they have a bit of a cushion (though they'll have to pay a portion of that money back later). For the players, no football means no paycheck, and loss of earning power during their prime athletic years. And for fans, well, no football wouldn't just be a bitter disappointment that could rearrange their fall weekend schedules, but also a betrayal of intense loyalty that could permanently damage America's best sports brand.

 

Both sides will continue to spin their arguments. The owners say that costs outpace the NFL's revenue growth, which has been remarkable: 43%, in total, since 2006, according to an analysis done by Forbes, which calculated that in 2009, the league booked $9.3 billion in revenue. But the owners claim that since, in part, player compensation has doubled over the past decade — according to the league — players need to take a smaller share of a growing revenue pie. That proposal, the union says, amounts to an 18% pay cut for its membership

 

The labor tussle is happening at the same time that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is pushing to expand the season to 18 games — there are currently 16 — a move that would surely grow revenue, and increase the pot for the players, but appears to fly in the face of the league's new emphasis on player safety. Additional games, the players say, put our future earnings at risk, since NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed in the first place, a notable difference from pro basketball and pro baseball for which the union has been criticized over the years.

 

When it comes to fights over money, neither pro-football players nor owners are easy to root for. The owners are rich enough to begin with, and the players, though they take part in a violent game that risks their long-term health, are compensated handsomely.

 

Yet in the p.r. war, the NFL's success will likely bite the owners more. Public indicators of the game's overall health are overwhelmingly positive. The sport is setting ratings records every week, revenues are strong, and ESPN is reportedly close to agreeing to increase the fee it pays the NFL to telecast Monday Night Football to around $2 billion annually, an increase of at least 65%. "I mean, if there was a problem in the National Football League with money, fine, let's fix it," Smith said during his pep talk to players. "But we can't be in a world where we don't think the National Football League is doing better than frankly any other business in America."

 

The NFL, not surprisingly, rejects that assertion. "Costs must be properly balanced against revenue so that the league and the game can continue to grow," Greg Aiello, the NFL's senior vice president of public relations, wrote earlier this month, in an article published on ESPN.com. "Companies with far more revenue than the NFL have gone bankrupt because they did not properly manage their costs."

 

It's a reasonable argument. But in response, the union makes its own very reasonable point that, frankly, seems pretty hard to dispute. If costs are so high, and teams are not making as much money as they used to, why can't the NFL show the players each team's full audited financial statements, which would include a bottom-line item — net income, or profit (or loss) — that gives both sides a fuller accounting of the league's financial state?

 

Well, the NFL says, we've given the union more information than we ever have in prior negotiations, including audited revenues. "They know more about our revenues than most unions know about the revenues of the businesses they work in," Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead negotiator, recently said in an interview with Politico about the transparency issue.

 

But if it's all about costs, critics rightly wonder, why the is league not telling the union the full story with audited team costs, and therefore audited team bottom lines. The NFL says it has never provided team profit numbers before, and the sport has had labor peace for 20 years. It also might be concerned that the union would leak this information to the public. But aren't we talking about the same public that forks over millions to subsidize stadiums and pours money into the pockets of both owners and players? Isn't there a strong case to make that they also have a right to get a look at the books?

 

The NBA's collective bargaining agreement also expires soon — on June 30 — and the NFL points out that even though that league recently turned over audited statements to the players, the union disputed those numbers. What's to stop the same thing from happening here, the NFL asks. It's true, of course, that the union will likely spin the numbers, and even dispute any information the NFL hands over. But at this point, could the two sides get any further away from a deal than they already are?

 

It doesn't seem unreasonable to conclude that if team finances were truly hurting, the NFL would be chucking books at the players. "I wouldn't be able to walk down the street without being bombarded with financial statements," says Smith, the NFL Players Association executive director. "Here's a copy for your kitchen, here's one for your bathroom." One club, the Packers, makes its information public since fans can actually buy shares in the team. In the fiscal year that ended last March 31, the team pulled in $9.8 million in profits, compared with $20.1 million for the previous year. But in a league with 32 teams, the union won't be satisfied with a fraction of the story.

 

As a private enterprise, the NFL has no legal obligation to hand over the books. So in a sticky labor negotiation, any smart business would hold its cards, right? But then again, the NFL isn't your typical private company. If a lawyer, say, isn't happy with his salary or thinks his bosses are hoarding too much cash, the free market lets him go work at another firm. But in football, there's simply no other league where players can be similarly compensated for their specialized skills.

 

Smith, a former prosecutor and litigator who took over for the late Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame player, in 2009, is fond of sketching out his arguments on a whiteboard, like a coach diagramming his plays. During another meeting on that Tuesday in Washington, he wrote three things that, from the union's perspective, are essential for getting a deal done: "Data. Data. Data." For the good of the game, and the fans, isn't it time for the league to show all of us — the players, the fans — the money?

 

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. His sports column appears every Friday at TIME.com.

 

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"Companies with far more revenue than the NFL have gone bankrupt because they did not properly manage their costs."

 

Okay. Who? When?

 

This isn't that complicated. The owners need to pay up. And I think they eventually will...

 

As far as ownership goes, I feel pretty good rooting for a Mara-owned team. And I root against the Mike Browns of the world. But I don't watch the NFL for the owners, I watch it for the players and the coaches.

 

If the owners lock out the players, I hope the players teach them a lesson and buy up a minor league, which they absolutely have the capital to do. And because its got the players, its now the major league. And as a fan, I go with them. If there's one thing I'd like better than the NFL, its a player-owned league.

 

I don't see this on the table, but if the owners are worried about controlling costs, they need to have a salary cap/floor that retracts if revenues shrink. But absolutely, give the players a bigger share of the pie. The biggest. Almost all of it. They deserve it, because they're the league, they're the ones putting their lives on the line... not the owners.

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I agree. In a lot of other sports I wouldn't be so for the players but the NFL is so violent the players deserve the money for playing. Sometimes I am surprised somebody doesn't get killed every year.

 

I guess a decent raise is in order.. especially for less paid players.. the non-stars. And to be fair, owners have been good towards the players... they do make millions don't they?

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I guess a decent raise is in order.. especially for less paid players.. the non-stars. And to be fair, owners have been good towards the players... they do make millions don't they?

 

For every Manning contract there are 30 player making under $500k. Not that half a million is shit money but the average player career is about 4 years. The NFL chews through players very quickly. Also the owners have not been good to the players because the majority of contracts are not guaranteed.

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As Chris Rock says...players like say, Adrian Peterson are rich.....the white dude signing his check is wealthy.

 

In the end, the owners can't make any money off these guys if these guys aren't even playing. They will and should be paid.

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For every Manning contract there are 30 player making under $500k. Not that half a million is shit money but the average player career is about 4 years. The NFL chews through players very quickly. Also the owners have not been good to the players because the majority of contracts are not guaranteed.

 

correct but it's not like they retire on wheel chairs. Those who don't play much are well paid for the amount of work they do. I think some kind of fund for anyone who gets injured and is unable to work is in order but other than that, i think the NFL's current model is pretty fair for all sides.

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correct but it's not like they retire on wheel chairs. Those who don't play much are well paid for the amount of work they do. I think some kind of fund for anyone who gets injured and is unable to work is in order but other than that, i think the NFL's current model is pretty fair for all sides.

 

Well part of the player's union issues is better pension for retired players, especially the real old timers that got screwed. I don't think the big issue is money it's more about not extending the season, player safety and retirement. On the owner's side it's definitely all about money.

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I agree. In a lot of other sports I wouldn't be so for the players but the NFL is so violent the players deserve the money for playing. Sometimes I am surprised somebody doesn't get killed every year.

 

 

Guaranteed salaries should be the norm....afraid a guy is not going to outlive/play through his contract...make three-four year deals the standard then. Most NFL guys crap out during the third or fourth year anyway. And NFL owners are the definition of Plutocrats....this cry me a river poverty thing and we are just on the black side of the margins horseshit has got to stop. No one buys or owns an NFL franchise has to collect Food Stamps. There's that thing call TV contracts and revenue sharing ....billions upon billions of dollars. :jerkoff:

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For every Manning contract there are 30 player making under $500k. Not that half a million is shit money but the average player career is about 4 years. The NFL chews through players very quickly. Also the owners have not been good to the players because the majority of contracts are not guaranteed.

 

 

Exactly....500k for a 3-4 year career might seem like a lot to the average Joe...but cumulatively its not. Most of these guys due to the college sham system for football and basketball (instead of a real minor league as in baseball) these cats don't even have any real marketable skills for the most part after graduation. Whereas in baseball...I would hazard half the Dominican players are not literate in Spanish beyond the equivalent of a 5th Grade reading level. Real contracts with pay that lasts the life of the contract...not once where after you sign the 5 million dollar contract you suffer a torn ACL in training camp and get a 200k injury settlement (if that much) and a push out the door and told never to darken the hallway again with their presence. :jerkoff:

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correct but it's not like they retire on wheel chairs. Those who don't play much are well paid for the amount of work they do. I think some kind of fund for anyone who gets injured and is unable to work is in order but other than that, i think the NFL's current model is pretty fair for all sides.

 

They don't retire on wheelchairs Nas....but most of them have the bodies of someone in their late 50's if they last to 30. And by the time they are in their chronological fifties...many of them walk like ducks because of the damage wrought by the game. And those are the guys without canes or crutches.

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Well part of the player's union issues is better pension for retired players, especially the real old timers that got screwed. I don't think the big issue is money it's more about not extending the season, player safety and retirement. On the owner's side it's definitely all about money.

 

 

I think the tradeoff should be guaranteed contracts; a decent pension/retirement/medical system; and for the owners an 18 game season. A neutral wash would be the expanding the roster and modifying the injured reserve system so a guy who is injured badly in game two but recovers by game 12 should not have to wait until next year to play. The old system was you could pull a guy or two (I forget the exact details) off of injured reserve for free. After that if you tried the person would have to clear "waivers" meaning any team could claim him and that increased the risk exponentially.

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I used to root for the players, but I just root for the team now. Since free agency, players are just hired hands....most of them couldn't give a rats ass what team they play for, and that goes for the fans too.

 

Maybe they can work out a new plan that incentivizes players to stay with the team that drafted them.

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Guaranteed salaries should be the norm....afraid a guy is not going to outlive/play through his contract...make three-four year deals the standard then. Most NFL guys crap out during the third or fourth year anyway. And NFL owners are the definition of Plutocrats....this cry me a river poverty thing and we are just on the black side of the margins horseshit has got to stop. No one buys or owns an NFL franchise has to collect Food Stamps. There's that thing call TV contracts and revenue sharing ....billions upon billions of dollars. :jerkoff:

 

This is why I think a lock out is an eventuality. The owners will still get TV money so they hold almost all the cards. No salaries and still making revenue.

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This is why I think a lock out is an eventuality. The owners will still get TV money so they hold almost all the cards. No salaries and still making revenue.

 

 

Makes you pine for the days of the USFL...can anyone say monopoly ...and like all monopolies could care less for anyone not part of it. I mean its clear that the NFL is a money making machine...but like all plutocrats...its never enough. Its a fucking shame...but thankfully the Knicks are starting to improve again, and I might watch a baseball game or two again. These dumb ass owners will blow up their own thing just to win. Disgusting.

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They don't retire on wheelchairs Nas....but most of them have the bodies of someone in their late 50's if they last to 30. And by the time they are in their chronological fifties...many of them walk like ducks because of the damage wrought by the game. And those are the guys without canes or crutches.

 

Earl Campbell and Mike Webster are the first players I think of when it comes to this issue. It's controlled chaos, but the NFL is essentially the Colosseum of our time. I love the game but I would definitely consider it a guilty pleasure.

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Earl Campbell and Mike Webster are the first players I think of when it comes to this issue. It's controlled chaos, but the NFL is essentially the Colosseum of our time. I love the game but I would definitely consider it a guilty pleasure.

 

 

Yup... I used to wonder why almost all of the head coaches in the 80's or 90's walked like ducks...cause most of them were linemen ...either on offense or defense...getting chop blocked and clipped up the wazoo. I mean just out of humane reasons these guys need better compensation.

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I wonder if anyone has thought about giving the players association 2 franchises and let them run the clubs.

 

It would be interesting for sure

 

They would have to put it in a blind trust ...to avoid a conflict of interest. But they would run it just the way the current owners do.

 

This is heading towards a lock out. The owners are entitled to their profit owing to their risk...and the players are entitled to their sal and long range security owing to their physical risk.

 

Irresistible force ....meet unmovable object.

 

C. Wagon.

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They would have to put it in a blind trust ...to avoid a conflict of interest. But they would run it just the way the current owners do.

 

This is heading towards a lock out. The owners are entitled to their profit owing to their risk...and the players are entitled to their sal and long range security owing to their physical risk.

 

Irresistible force ....meet unmovable object.

 

C. Wagon.

 

 

unfortunately I think you are right. It is still absolutely mind numbing that they can't get this worked out given the dollars at stake.

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LMAO.

 

Can i interest you in a bridge of questionable provenance? A good deal on a bag of magic beens per chance?

 

Okay well obviously money matters but it's more the players feeling like they are not getting a big enough chunk of the pie for the bodily risks they take. The owners keeping their books closed doesn't help but then again it's never black and white anyway.

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Okay well obviously money matters but it's more the players feeling like they are not getting a big enough chunk of the pie for the bodily risks they take. The owners keeping their books closed doesn't help but then again it's never black and white anyway.

 

Agreed. That is why I thought it would be interesting if the league offered the player union two expansion slots. Say LA and Mexico City or maybe Montreal. ( the league has made no secret of desiring international expansion ). It would be worth maybe a billion ( 750 for LA / 250 for the riskier start up ) bucks and would give the union a more transparent account of the finances involved in running a franchise.

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Agreed. That is why I thought it would be interesting if the league offered the player union two expansion slots. Say LA and Mexico City or maybe Montreal. ( the league has made no secret of desiring international expansion ). It would be worth maybe a billion ( 750 for LA / 250 for the riskier start up ) bucks and would give the union a more transparent account of the finances involved in running a franchise.

 

Thats the last thing the owners want.

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