The future of America’s most popular sport became even more uncertain last Friday, when the NFL players’ union and league exercised last-ditch options after the two sides failed to reach a new collective bargaining deal.
The NFL Players Association decertified last Friday and filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the league in part to prevent a lockout by the owners. The NFL owners went ahead and declared a lockout shortly before the midnight deadline, which essentially freezes free agency signings, trades, and bars players from team practice facilities.
The impasse marks the NFL’s first work stoppage since 1987, which the union argues will have great impact beyond the players because it jeopardizes 150,00 jobs and local economies. As the conflict moves from the bargaining table to the courts, it also puts into flux the 2011 season of America’s most popular sport. The situation could take months to resolve, and the recent public relations efforts by the union signals a heightened attention to rallying public opinion.
The union, formally known as the National Football League Players Association, dissolved and considers itself as a “trade association.” Shortly after its decertification, 10 players, including marquee players like Tom Brady and Drew Brees, served as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in federal court against the NFL. In turn, the NFL is awaiting a decision on a complaint filed to the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the union unfairly decertified as a bargaining tactic.
The players and owners were unable to come to terms, despite extending the federally mediated talks an extra week. A central issue has been how to divide up the $9 billion in revenue, with the owners asking for a large proportion from the players for operations and maintenance costs. The players have asked for full financial data. The owners offered to open their books, but not to extent of the union’s request to substantiate the claim.
A preliminary court date for the anti-trust lawsuit is set for April 6 before a judge in Minnesota. The players hope to have judge David Doty oversee the case because he has ruled in their favor in past disputes. Meanwhile, there were reports this week that the union has asked some NFL prospects to boycott the upcoming draft, an allegation the union has not outright denied.
Since the decertification, the NFLPA’s website has all but disappeared with only a link to a new website detailing their position, NFLLockout.com. Based on the information from the website, the union is painting the league as having inequitable demands without financial transparency, and is attempting to strip players’ basic rights like healthcare. The website claims the players have been for revenue parity all along, backed up by their data, and have maintained they are satisfied with their previous collective bargaining agreement. They allege that the owners have enough to sustain themselves through a lockout.
The talking points and solidarity campaigns have been important in rallying public support. Externally, the union and players appealed to the public, much more so than the league. Since negotiations began, the union has released a report detailing the economic impact for stadium workers, which says local economies will lose $160 million in each NFL city.
The union also offered support for the public-sector workers in Wisconsin, even aligning with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka as a symbol of worker solidarity. Recently, in the second of two statements released by the NFLPA after the negotiations failed, its message has a segment that directly addresses the fans and offers
The statement reads:
To the fans, we are sorry it came to this today. You deserve better. I am truly sorry. The players are sorry. Our players — YOUR players — left everything they had at the table.
The NFL said in a statement last week that the union “left a very good deal on the table.” Although the statement, which outlined the league’s offers during negotiations, makes references to workers fighting for collective bargaining rights, the message has a far less personable appeal.
Players like Drew Brees and union spokesman George Atallah have embraced social media to interact with fans. Owners have recently countered by sending letters to ticket holders. And commissioner Roger Goodell and league general counsel Jeff Pash have fulfilled their January promise to reduce their salaries to $1 during the lockout.
Clearly, each side understands public opinion will play a role in the conflict. The players’ union has had the wisdom to appeal directly to workers and fans, and that could maike all the difference as this big league battle drags on this year.