Beyond all the self-pity and spin coming from the offices of National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell, here is the naked truth. We face the prospect of no football in 2011 because the players made a three word demand that would not have cost the owners a dime: open your books.
DeMaurice Smith and the NFL Players Association wanted 10 years of financial audits so they could see why the most successful sports league on earth was claiming to be financially embattled. They wanted to see how the owners could feel justified to ask for a rookie pay scale and 18% cuts in player compensation. They wanted to see how, despite all we now know about the brutal hazards of the sport, the owners could insist on adding two more regular season games. But the owners refused to open the books, offering instead “a single sheet of paper with two numbers on it.” This single sheet would only be available to the union after being vetted by an independent third-party.
It’s unclear why the owners have made a deal-breaking fetish of financial secrecy. We can only assume that the "books" would not be flattered by the light of day. We don't know whether their private ledgers would provoke the IRS to give the NFL something slightly less pleasant than a body cavity search. We don’t know if the audits would demonstrate that owners leveraged their franchises and then took a bath in the 2008 economic crash. We don’t know if individual NFL owners - like their MLB counterparts - lied to local governments so they could get more taxpayer cash for stadiums. Given the financial state of baseball’s New York Mets, whose owners flushed their liquidity by partnering up with a guy by the name of Bernie Madoff, you’d forgive us for fearing the worst.
The NFLPA also offered to consider all cuts in return for an ownership stake in the teams. The owners responding like the players arrived at negotiations wearing white after Labor Day. NFL lead counsel Bob Batterman reportedly responded, "My clients aren't interested in being partners with your guys." It’s this kind of plutocratic noblesse contempt that’s poisoned the well.
The NFL Players Association, feeling derided and disrespected has now decertified so they can sue the league and forestall the owners from shutting down the sport. Litigation isn't pretty, but going to the courts means that the NFLPA can get an injunction and prevent a lockout. An injunction means we will have football this fall.
The owners have responded by confusingly calling for a return to the bargaining table, while stating their intent to move forward with the lockout. This is like claiming to care about concussions while calling for two extra games a season.
After negotiations broke off, NFLPA leader DeMaurice Smith said,
“As businessmen, we asked the owners two years ago to consider two basic tenets to getting a fair deal: financial transparency and the health and safety of our players. Financial transparency would help us reach a compromise. Even until the last moment, we were rebutted. And as for health and safety, that’s a non-negotiable issue. To our players, I will not ever yield on this point. There is no price tag for your arms, legs, backs, necks, shoulders and brains.”
Then the owners released a statement that took the chutzpah scale to new, unimagined heights. They wrote, "At a time when thousands of employees are fighting for their collective bargaining rights, this union has chosen to abandon collective bargaining in favor of a sham 'decertification' and antitrust litigation."
Gobsmacked does not begin to describe my reaction. NFL owners are people who in their personal politics, respect unions about as much as Peter King respects Ramadan (that's congressional Islamaphobic goon Peter King, not Starbucks-swilling NFL writer, Peter King.)
It would be nice to think their press release is simply a respectful tribute to the heroic struggles of the public sector unions. It would be nice to think that even NFL owners have been moved by the plight of Wisconsin's teachers, nurses, and ambulance drivers, but let's be real. The owners are trying to drive a wedge between working class fans and players by portraying the members of the union as greedy, entitled and out-of-touch.
Professional football players average three and a half years in the league. They severely injure their bodies, and die 22 years before the typical American male. Yet the owners would like us to see them as ungrateful, cloistered, creatures of privilege. If the owners really want to see people who match that description, they'd be better off investing in a mirror.
[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]