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NFL Lockout Over: Looking Back & Looking Forward

Goodell/Smith handshake (Image from nydailynews.com)

Over the past three years, NFL coaches, media members and fans have wondered the same question: Will there be a professional football season in 2011? After the league owners agreed to unanimously opt-out of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) in May 2008, the threat of no football has lingered for three seasons. That fear can finally be put to rest however, as both the NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) have agreed to a deal that will last through the 2021 season.

The Background

Displeased with their two-year old CBA, the NFL owners exercised their option to opt-out of the deal prior to 2008, ending the deal after the 2010 league year. Citing stadium operating costs (despite many new stadiums being publicly financed) and rising player salaries, all 32 owners agreed to end the CBA after the 2010 season in what appeared to be a clear money grab.

As the 2010 season drew near, it was evident that both sides were already preparing for a nasty lockout. Players’ union head DeMaurice Smith visited the training camp of every team, asking for permission for union decertification as a last resort, which would turn the NFLPA into a trade association. This move would allow the players to file an anti-trust suit, a strong strategic play considering the NFL’s past experience in the court system.

Despite record television ratings, the threat of a prolonged work stoppage loomed as the CBA was set to expire on March 3. In his annual state of the league address prior to Super Bowl XLV, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was bombarded with questions of labor uncertainty, overshadowing a historic matchup between two of the league’s premier franchises in Green Bay and Pittsburgh.

With the March 3 deadline approaching rapidly, attempted negotiations were contentious. Both parties stepped up their rhetoric, turning the labor unrest into a public relations battle in which no fan cared about.

Members of the players’ executive board and the players they represented expressed a blatant distrust of the commissioner, the owners and their negotiating tactics. This distrust was confirmed by Judge David Doty after he sided with the NFLPA in the infamous lockout insurance case.

This case showed how committed the owners were to a work stoppage. In 2009, with a potential lockout two years away, the owners manipulated their television partners into renegotiating their current contracts. The new deals forced CBS, DirecTV, ESPN, FOX, and NBC to continue payments regardless of a 2011 work stoppage, giving the owners a major nest egg to survive a season without games.

Players and owners continued to negotiate the following week, with both sides even agreeing to extend the CBA an additional seven days for one final attempt at a deal. Another week of negotiations followed, but neither side was able to come to an agreement. The owners offered one final 11th hour proposal, but the NFLPA felt slighted and used their only play remaining, decertification to allow for the anti-trust lawsuit named Brady et al vs. National Football League et al. This suit would question the legality of many of the league’s procedures, including the NFL Draft.

At this point, the future of the 2011 season was in the hands of various courts. The players struck a big victory in Minnesota after Judge Susan Nelson deemed that the lockout was illegal, temporarily lifting the lockout in April. The NFL appealed the decision, winning on appeal to keep the lockout in place shortly thereafter. In the short window after Nelson’s ruling, most coaching staffs handed out playbooks so the players could begin preparations if and when the 2011 season occurred before the league continued the lockout.

As May and June passed and the season remained in serious jeopardy, both sides continued to negotiate in anticipation of the court’s final ruling. Judge Kermit Bye of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit encouraged both sides to negotiate, or neither side would like his final decision. This ominous threat persuaded both sides to kick the action into high gear as time grew short.

Throughout July, a cautious optimism permeated throughout the league circles that a deal would be completed before any action was missed. Both parties were able to agree on the economic principles before finally completing the terms of a rookie wage scale and finishing up the final points of the agreement last weekend.

The Aftermath

Despite the loss of organized team activities (OTAs), a full free agency and trading period, the outward results of the NFL lockout appear nil, leaving no black mark on the league. As the season progresses, this summer’s labor issue will be long forgotten as teams vie for a birth in the postseason and the quest for the Lombardi Trophy begins.

Players and coaches will have to work around a slightly shortened training camp, four preseason games and the complete 17-week season.  Veterans and rookies had the opportunity to review playbooks while the lockout was temporarily lifted, while player-led workouts kept most veterans in shape in addition to exposing the rookies to their teammates.

With the agreement in place and training camps starting on Wednesday, fans will return to NFL stadiums in droves. The league is coming off of a postseason that saw its highest television ratings in 15 years. Fantasy football remains immensely popular, and let’s face it, the NFL has no tangible television opponent in either the 1, 4, 8:15 or Monday night slot, despite baseball pennant races and postseason chases (Sorry MLB fans). Some NFL owners even stated that season ticket sales were up during the work stoppage.

Fans will continue to buy team merchandise, advertisers will be satisfied and fans won’t miss any of their favorite team’s action.

Going forward, it will be business as usual for the NFL. With the new CBA lasting until 2021, labor peace will be prevalent going forward for America’s most popular sport.

Comparing the NBA and NFL Lockouts

The NFL is not the only league with a labor strife however, as the NBA is currently engaged in a lockout of its own. Unlike the NFL though, the NBA is no cash cow. Commissioner David Stern claims that 22 of the league’s 30 teams are losing money, with a reported $300 million in losses despite the highest television ratings since 2003.

Several issues dominate this current basketball lockout, as both sides appear to be in a stalemate that has no end date in sight. Owners want the players to take a smaller piece of the economic pie, while also seeking a chance in the league’s current soft salary cap. The players steadfastly refuse to give up such a large portion, leading to the current quagmire.

With owners apparently ready to dig in their heels for what could be a prolonged work stoppage, several players appear willing to take their talents overseas, including Europe or China for the right to still play. Nets superstar Deron Williams has agreed to play in Turkey, while others such as Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard appear to be shopping their services to the right bidder. The fate of the 2011-12 season is without a doubt in question.

Who Won the Lockout? The NFLPA or Owners?

Despite over 130 days of a work stoppage, the owners can ultimately declare themselves winners. Owners were able to increase their share in the economic landscape, completing their ultimate goal. The owners also were able to implement a rookie-salary cap, ending the contract chaos that surrounds high draft picks (such as Sam Bradford receiving $50 million guaranteed in 2010.

In the end, the fans have won as well. While diehards like me will complain that free agency was greatly affected, the casual fan will not miss one iota of action. That, combined with the mere thought that football will be played uninterrupted for the next decade, is a bright spot for all those who love this game.

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Discussion

One comment for “NFL Lockout Over: Looking Back & Looking Forward”

  1. Absolutely agree that the owners were the biggest winners here. A rookie salary cap was absolutely necessary, unproven players have no business holding owners for ransom as we have seen in the past.

    Posted by BostonDoug | July 27, 2011, 5:29 pm

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