NFL, Players in Court Today

Today is a crucial day in the ongoing labor dispute between the NFL and the supposedly disbanded players’ union, the NFLPA as they return to court.

In order to try and force the owners to give up their plans to use more of the NFL’s annual profit to help expand the game, the NFLPA disbanded, allowing them to sue the NFL and its franchises for antitrust violations. The NFL responded by locking the players out. Today’s hearing, among other things, will decide whether that lockout is legal or not.

If the NFL wins, as seems likely, the players will have few options left. They can hope for a win at the hopelessly politicized National Labor Relations Board, which so often takes the union’s side, but they will still be locked out, and a win on the antitrust violations will probably be years away, years in which they will no longer be playing football. Nor is a win guaranteed, as a Supreme Court case last year reaffirmed that “the fact that NFL teams share an interest in making the entire league successful and profitable, and that they must cooperate in the production and scheduling of games, provides a perfectly  sensible justification for making a host of collective decisions.”

If the players win their antitrust suit, it would in all likelihood mean an end to league parity, an end to the draft, an end to high rookie salaries, much greater disparity in wages between, say, quarterbacks and special teamers, and a host of other drastic changes to the game. Now, not all of those changes would be bad things, but they would certainly change the game from the product that millions of consumers enjoy and in all probability lead to a contraction of the NFL rather than its expansion (some teams are struggling already — imagine what would happen if the league was forced by government to abandon parity). Nor is it clear that the NFL is the only option for players. The rise of the AFL showed what can happen in this sport — it is not like baseball.

As a fan of the game for ten years even before I came to the US in the mid 1990s, I am very much hoping that the court rules quickly in favor of the owners today.