In 1955, National Football League players asked for jocks, socks and clean uniforms for practice. Green Bay Packers’ owner Curley Lambeau refused. That led to the first players’ union.
Somewhere over the next 40-plus years, the game became a multi-billion dollar sports industry with lucrative TV contracts, merchandise galore, corporate sponsorships and public subsidies for constructing luxury sports domes.
But some things haven’t changed. The owners are again digging in their heels, citing a tough economy to wring concessions from the NFL Players Association (NFLPA).
One of the big sticking points is money. Currently, players get almost 60 percent of the NFL’s revenue; owners want an even bigger piece of the pie and blame players for the high ticket prices fans are forced to pay.
The union counters that the average profit of an NFL team is $24.7 million. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, spokesperson for the bosses, claims “there is a lot of fiction in that.” The NFLPA’s reply? Open the books!
In March 2008, NFL owners voted to terminate their collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the players’ union after the 2010 season – two years ahead of schedule. The owners are also threatening to lock out players in 2011.
The strike of 1987.
The last NFL labor dispute got pretty ugly. The bosses hired scab players and convinced the networks to put the games on TV. The union didn’t have a strike fund and some players gradually crossed the picket line. After the strike of 1987, the NFLPA’s Executive Director Gene Upshaw eventually formed a less adversarial relationship with owners. Both sides duked out their issues in court, and players prospered a little in the subsequent years, although not nearly as much as the industry, which last year raked in $8 billion.
Players who retired from the game were an entirely different story. As anyone who watches football knows, players suffer bone-crushing injuries that affect them long after they leave the field. Only a select few parlay their success into TV careers. In 2006, USA Today reported that 78 percent of players wind up bankrupt or unemployed three years after retirement.
Unlike owners, who typically come from money and earn their wealth elsewhere, players come from poverty and spend years playing football in high school and college before earning a dime in the big leagues.
Former players, such as the late Hall-of-Famer Mike Webster, have wound up homeless because of sky-high medical costs the union health plan doesn’t cover. A star player with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ’70s, Webster earned the owners fabulous profits.
As a union rep, Upshaw formed a cantankerous relationship with retirees even though he was one himself; retirees are shortchanged on pension money and the millions being made by companies that sell their images to a thirsty fan base. Upshaw, who lived a lavish lifestyle, took the postion that retirees didn’t pay his salary.
Perhaps a new era.
Upshaw died of pancreatic cancer last year and in March, the players elected DeMaurice Smith, a lawyer, as Upshaw’s successor. Smith, 45, comes from a working class background. He was elected on the first ballot by 32 union reps – one for each NFL team – after he presented the Players Association with a comprehensive plan for the future. Key was his view that the union had “a moral and business obligation to former players.”
And in a departure from Upshaw’s top-down style Smith is meeting with players in an effort to unify them. This summer, he has travelled from one team to the next, educating players about their business – how much the owners make and how the stadiums they play in are publicly financed.
In June, Smith reached out to former players agreeing to settle their lawsuit against the union. Herb Adderly was the lead plaintiff in a class action suit representing 2,056 former players, who won a claim that the union had breached licensing and marketing terms. The players were awarded $28 million but the union promised not to appeal and settled out of court for $26 million.
Meanwhile, with the retirement of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, owners also have a new rep. Roger Goodell sent a message to the NFLPA in March: get a new labor contract done before the 2010 season or the bargaining will get much tougher. Goodell’s strong-arm message came at the owners’ meetings where it was also announced that the NFL had just received $1 billion per year for 2011-2014 from DirecTV.
The owners get that money even if games aren’t played in the 2011 season. In other words, the owners have lockout insurance; they are guaranteed $31 million per year, whether or not football is played.
Are football players well off?
While some fans have trouble sympathizing with the NFL players they watch on TV every week the reality is that most players are anything but rich. The average salary for football players is about $750,000, while baseball players cleared an average of $3 million. For NFL rookies, it is around $400,000.
On the surface that sounds great, but NFL salaries, unlike those in pro basketball and baseball, aren’t guaranteed. Players receive signing bonuses up front, but can get released at any time without severance pay.
The average length of an NFL career is about 3.5 seasons, compared to 6 for major league baseball players.
While some leave the game with their health relatively intact, many are literally carried from the gridiron and live the rest of their lives in pain. Given this, it’s easy to see why current players voted for Smith’s vision to do better by retirees. They know their time will also come soon.
The owners clearly have the money advantage as negotiations start, but players have incentive and, increasingly it seems, unity.
“Our guys understand the cost of playing football on a Monday or Tuesday morning when they struggle to stand upright,” said Smith. “What they don’t understand is what does the average team make per game?”
As both sides prepared for a possible lock out, Smith is coaching his players to tackle that question. Stay tuned. Fans may be asked to turn off a blank TV screen in 2011 and join real players on the picket lines.
R.V. Murphy, a veteran sports writer and homeless rights activist, can be reached at