Sunday, March 13, 2011

The NFL Owners' New Haugh

The routine I have now developed for weekends involves, on Saturday, getting up early, sitting through multiple Dora episodes, trying to get the family out of the house to avoid watching more Dora episodes, following the Charlton league tie through Charlton Life on my wireless, overcoming the disappointment of a horrifically poor run of play under SCP to get on with the day, and then talking myself out of whatever I had planned for the evening to watch the Chicago Bulls.

Last night, I talked myself out of using the tickets I purchased for the Richmond Kickers - University of Maryland preseason game. The Terps got shellacked in the second half, but I would have gone just to see 600+ people turn out for a third division soccer team's preseason match (and to see that London Woodberry remains very much a part of University of Maryland soccer). I would imagine that the Kickers are very proud to have engendered such remarkable support at Ukrop Park yesterday and I am looking forward to driving down for a game at City Stadium at some point this upcoming season.

And then I talked myself out of watching the 4A state championship, missing a great game at Comcast that crowned Waldorf's North Point as the best high school basketball championship.

The Bulls game was a nice alternative.

68 - 41 at the half. Franchise record of 18 made threes (shooting 56% from beyond the arc). C.J. Watson with 16 points, 8 assists, and 5 rebounds in 17 minutes. Win led to a virtual tie for first with the Celtics in the East.

All beautiful, but all overshadowed by the twentieth anniversary tribute to Chicago's first NBA titleholders. The entirety of the event was well orchestrated by the franchise, but the visual of Michael Jordan pointing to the current team -- taking in the festivities seated on their bench -- and telling Bulls fans not to be surprised if they win six more left an indelible mark.

Sundays bring another early morn and more Dora. But there is a blessed opportunity to catch some live soccer (today it allowed viewing of Renato Augusto's nifty steal and Bayer Leverkusen's gamewinner over Mainz and Reading's valiant efforts against Man City in the FA Cup) and read the papers.

Today, the Chicago Tribune is highlighting David Haugh's criticism of the NFLPA. Haugh argues that the players' union has overreached and reports that DeMaurice Smith's ego eclipsed what Haugh decrees a good deal for the union.

Everyone has an opinion, but not every opinion has merit.

Haugh's editorial is heavy on apportioning blame but light on any substantive criticism of the NFL Players Association's position. Instead, Haugh focuses on atmospherics and what is, ultimately, his political opinion that employees ought to accept labor terms that are reasonable. His willingness to positively characterize a proposal based on the summary released to the public by the NFL does not reflect terribly well on his judgment, but the bigger issue is what Haugh makes no effort to argue: that the the NFLPA's proposal endangers the long-term health and success of the overall enterprise.

The inability to characterize the players' proposal as harmful to the game should ultimately lay bare the true nature of this dispute. Ad hominem attacks on the "greed" of NFL players or the purportedly oversized egos of those negotiating for the players can only distract for a limited time.

As can the even more idiotic arguments leveled against the players -- these tend to employ ridiculously inapt analogies to the salaries of the common NFL fan to those of NFL players and fundamental misunderstandings regarding the nature of labor markets and the structure of the NFL.

My favorite comparison is the poisonous observation that members of the American military make considerably less than the average NFL player. For those truly concerned about the disparity, one might suggest that their outrage is mildly misplaced. Our infantry men are horrifically under-compensated for the sacrifices they make for this country; but any comparison to professional football players is absurd for any number of reasons.

The salaries for U.S. military men and women are established by the Department of Defense -- any agency that is accountable to the Office of the President and the U.S. Congress. In other words, our military is underpaid because we, as voting citizens, tolerate that state of affairs.

The economic activity generated by football players -- and the taxes paid to the federal government by their work -- contribute to the possibility of raising what we pay our service men and women. At the same time federal funds will continue to flow to government contractors and their executives, who make salaries far in excess of grunts in the Army, but who do not cause NFLPA's detractors to bat an eye. And, in the truly private sector, investment bankers and corporate attorneys among many other white collar professionals will continue to rake in obscenely bloated salaries from behind their desks without a concomitant contribution to the generation of wealth in this country.

But, you know, football players make more than enlisted men and women. So screw the players. (You know who else makes more than enlisted men and women? The NFL owners. And sports columnists. Neither of whom will put their physical health at risk for their paychecks).

The NFL's financial health is not in jeopardy. The league continues to enjoy an exemption from antitrust laws that precludes the realistic possibility of competition, while owners have extracted the right to further restrain competition by capping salaries and limiting what players can make for the good of the game.

But the owners want more. They want more guarantees on the revenue they will generate each year. And they want to generate more income through the additional league fixtures added to each season. And they want these concessions -- the additional guaranteed income in particular -- without demonstrating that the financial performance of the franchises have deteriorated to any extent over the last ten years.

Fortunately, the Tribune is also carrying a piece by Bill Plaschke that acknowledges what Haugh appears unwilling to concede: this is not like basketball or baseball. The lasting images of NFL players is not music videos, not television commercials, not primadonna fits of pique. At the moment, the lasting image -- particularly those for Chicagoans -- is the anguished end to Dave Duerson's difficult life and the daily afflictions of former warriors only a quarter century past their physical prime (like Wilber Marshall, who was forced to sue to obtain a meaningful award for disability, eventually winning an appeal before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2008).

The future of football as a dominant force in American sports culture depends upon the NFL doing right by its players. The marginalization of boxing (and the rise of mixed-martial arts, which does a better job appealing to the small portion of Americans lusting for bloodsport) over the last few decades should provide enough of a warning to the NFL that a significant number of fans will stop watching if they are convinced that they are tacitly contributing to the serious physical harm of players.

In these circumstances, it would be very difficult for the NFLPA to overplay its hand. The moral high ground is unquestionably on the side of labor on these facts and no amount of bombastic rhetoric will shift that reality. Owners want more money. End of story. Players, on the other hand, want more money and want to preserve the future of the game.

I have thought about this a lot over the last couple of months. If football came back with a labor agreement that extended the season to 18 games, failed to generously fund retirement benefits and health care for former players, and did not make the health and safety of current players the single biggest priority for the future of the NFL, I do not think I could justify watching Jay Cutler get knocked silly for another season or Chris Harris and Major Wright endanger their long term health to make plays that needed to be made on the field.

America is not Rome.

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