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THE GATHERING STORM
Peter King
October 18, 2010
A war of words over a new labor agreement has already begun, as NFL owners and players stake out their sides and make their cases in the looming battle over how to divvy up billions of dollars. What's at stake? The fate of football in 2011—and for years to come
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October 18, 2010

The Gathering Storm

A war of words over a new labor agreement has already begun, as NFL owners and players stake out their sides and make their cases in the looming battle over how to divvy up billions of dollars. What's at stake? The fate of football in 2011—and for years to come

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Sharing the wealth.

Players see no reason to change the current system of revenue distribution, which gives them, after some excluded fees, 60% of the total football revenue earned. Some owners want to explore a system in which players get a lump sum to divvy up—say, $4 billion a year. Teams will be more motivated to develop new revenue streams, it's argued, if they know they're going to keep that money rather than give 60% of it away.

Look for some of the league's more aggressive owners to advance this cause. Look for it to be a nonstarter. The last thing players want to see is wealthy owners aggressively selling more trinkets and jerseys with no benefit to the players. But some owners may be willing to sacrifice a chunk of the 2011 season to get a system more to their liking.

Life after football.

The first major line item the two sides will amend could be the rookie salary structure, fixing costs for each of the approximately 260 rookies per year by means of a slotting system. The two sides estimate that $200 million per year could be saved by such a system. But where will those savings go? To the veterans who've always been angered by, say, Sam Bradford's making more guaranteed money than Tom Brady before Bradford ever throws an NFL pass? To a so-called Legacy Fund that would dramatically boost pension payouts to players who retired before, say, 1990? To better health care for retirees and indigent former players?

Smith has said he won't ignore the men who made the game great in generations past; Hall of Fame running back Leroy Kelly's monthly pension of $176 is often brought up as an example of the league's poor care for elderly players. Everyone agrees that the pension and postcareer health systems need to be improved with a major infusion of cash. Where the money comes from is the question.

For now the players will throw as many legal challenges as they can think of against the wall and hope one sticks. They're investigating a collusion case, arguing that last off-season's relatively sparse free-agency movement is evidence that owners artificially held down the market. Collusion is always tough to prove: Football owners have never been found guilty of it, and this year they can point to a poor free-agent class and say the best players (Julius Peppers, Karlos Dansby, Dunta Robinson) got big contracts. Players have gone to court to try to prove that the $4 billion in network TV money that the league is guaranteed in 2011, football or no football, is a sham deal. (The league says the money is an advance on existing contracts.)

From the vantage point of mid-October 2010, it's impossible to know the end game. Four years into his term, Goodell has earned a reputation as a dealmaker, a good compromiser. Smith is probably not a players association lifer like Upshaw; he may be willing to take more bullets, and he's already made an ally in hardline former baseball-union boss Marvin Miller.

The players are talking tough now, which is not surprising this far out from a potential job action. But if owners are getting their TV money on schedule in 2011, the financial pressure will be squarely on the guys in the helmets and pads. The contest will turn into one of millionaires who are not getting paid versus billionaires who are. In that case, the smart money says it's probably a matter of time before the players cave.

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