Game Delayed TheoryThe irrational logic of nuclear war strategy guided the hand of NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith yesterday. "Use 'em or lose em," as they I hoped just used to say at the Pentagon. Fearful that the owners would launch a surprise assault of their lockout missile, Smith struck first with megatons of litigation by having the union decertify. Federal courthouses will be collateral damage, buried under a lethal fallout of briefs and bloviation.
Was Smith's move necessary? That's his call. I sure wouldn't trust the NFL owners as a group if my money was at stake. Was it somehow morally wrong? Don't be silly. We have here two groups of people fighting over nearly $10 billion. According to the written and unwritten rules of our society, they have every right to use all legal means at their disposal to advance their causes.
Was Smith's move wise? We shall see. Maybe not. The trouble with ultimate weapons is you can only shoot them off once. When the dust clears, Smith may find the same old stalemate transferred from a meeting room to a court room -- a questionable improvement.
But boys will be boys. That's the trouble with sports business. It isn't quite business so much as its the inner child of supremely competitive and willful people taking control of their brains. To be blunt, Smith has commenced the penis-measuring period of the player-owner dispute. Sad but true, it may be essential for the boys of both sides to get that over with before they can return to arguing about plain old money.
Return they will. Ten billion bucks is too much dough for any human's rational side to ignore. Sooner or later, probably sooner, both players and owners will realize that any money lost to this fight is money they will never see again.
The NFL cable TV beat reporters responded with visible anguish, and today's headlines deliberately raise the possibility there will be no pro football in 2011. I realize the news business has devolved to the point where all information must be designed to scare the hell out of the customers, and anything IS possible in this world. Some things, however, are less possible than others, and a football-less 2011 strikes me as a comet-strikes-Earth or Pirates-win-pennant level of probability occurrence.
Let's start with the obvious. Today is March 12. Football starts in September. Even if we assume training camps must start in late July to allow the NFL season to go on as usual, that leaves about 130 days for the players and owners to reach a settlement. That's an enormous amount of time, given that the two sides have already reached agreement on nearly all outstanding differences (in with rookie wage scale, out with 18-game schedule) except the biggest one, divvying up the swag. In short, the owners and union have gotten down to arithmetic. When they want to compromise, it will be relatively easy to do so.
Move on to history. There have been two NFL seasons interrupted by work stoppages. In 1982, a strike lasted seven weeks. In 1987, one lasted three. The players went back to work and the seasons went on. There were Super Bowls. Hardly anyone remembers the strikes. The sport was richer in 1987 than it was in 1982, so the stoppage was shorter. The sport is many many times richer today than it was in 1987. Draw your own conclusion.
The final and most obvious reason why I believe Smith's ploy is a really nonfatal setback to NFL labor peace is that the lawsuits it has spawned are in neither side's interest to win. The players don't want unfettered football capitalism and unlimited free agency. That would result in Tom Brady getting very much richer and the guys on the coverage teams getting very much poorer. There are of them than are of Tom.
The owners, once they think about, don't want to crush the union, either. They need it. The CBAs in hockey, basketball and the NFL are all that allow the leagues to get away with obvious violations of antitrust law, things like player drafts. Besides, the owners' legal argument against decertification, that it is a fraud because the union still exists in fact if not on paper, has a hidden flaw that has nothing to do with the law. It's already lost that argument back in 1989. Only the Supreme Court can overturn such precedents. Getting there and winning would take a great deal of time. We're talking June of 2012 at the earliest, more likely sometime in 2013. And they still might lose.
It is manifestly in both sides interest to settle. The truth is, there was no need for this dispute at all. Anyone who believes that NFL owners have been suffering financially from 2006-2010 is either an NFL owner themselves or a fool. Anyone who believes that the players couldn't give back some dough today and rake it all back in and then some after a few seasons as gross revenue keeps sailing upwards is similarly deluded. Now that Charlie Sheen is out, pro football is about the only program on television the networks know people will watch. As long as that's true, there will never be an NFL recession.
But as Caspar Gutman said in "The Maltese Falcon," "in the heat of battle, Mr. Spade, men often forget where their best interests lie." Smith's action yesterday turned up the NFL heat considerably. It probably will take several months of willfulness, arrogance and dick-comparisons before the temperature cools (Readers are advised to avoid all journalism on this dispute in the meantime. The ESPN NFL reporters were on the verge of weeping last night. By May, they could be reporting from window ledges).
Irrational emotion is about the most powerful force in human affairs. Ten-digit sums of money, however, are its equal and then some. In the end, the lure of loot will trump ego. God help us all when that ever changes.