National Football League vs. Players’ Union

Talk of Lockout in 2011 Heats up the Field

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 position 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.

  • First published in Freedom Socialist newspaper, Vol. 30, No. 4, August-September 2009.
  • R.V. Murphy, a veteran sports writer and homeless rights activist, can be reached at Read other articles by R.V..

    4 comments on this article so far ...

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    1. RobertinSeattle said on August 13th, 2009 at 10:45am #

      Your piece is one of the best encapsulations of the way things are today based on the long and contentious history between the NFL and the NFLPA. Some of the retired players are trying to be pragmatically optimistic about DeMaurice Smith even as the NFL continues to advance their old divide-and-conquer tactics that served them so well in the past when Upshaw ran the Union.

      There’s no doubt that there’s change in the air but most retired players are just beginning to look at it with guarded optimism, just as most on the inside who are holdovers from the Upshaw regime are very skeptical (or more). Some of the old guard are changing their tunes publicly while others seem to uncommonly silent. Hopefully, we will see the pace of changes pick up in the second half of this year as Smith begins to establish his own power base and sorts out friends from enemies. Ah – to be a fly on the wall inside the PA’s offices!

      P.S. – Watch for Berthelsen to likely be gone after September (mandatory retirement age was supposed to be set at 65 and Berthelsen’s is in September – so it’ll be a good excuse to put out the old “Spend more time with family” press release), with outside counsel Kessler not too far behind. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out, fellas!

    2. Jeff said on August 13th, 2009 at 3:10pm #

      Well, most NFL athletes have nothing to fall back on. Their education usually is meager. Who is at fault. I say society. I have had a career ending injury after 28 years in my league(Blue Collar). I educated myself well. Had I had just 3.5 seasons as an ongoing rookie @ $400,000 a year, My life would would be palpable. It is all about risk. I came from a poor family and worked my way to better things. Whether your worth is 5 years or 35 years, the business of ANY industry is to MAKE MONEY. The unfortunate deal is that each ‘individual’ will need to treat their own human bodies as a tool for business. Should I have done so, I would be much better off, and still in the “Game”.

    3. Bob said on August 16th, 2009 at 2:55pm #

      Just a tidbit, one reason the average NFL career is shorter. Veterans get paid more than rookies, and the longer they play the more their salary escalates. As an acquaintance of a long time NFL quarterback , and a casual friend of an NFL hall of famer, I’ve gathered that coaches make decisions on players, especially 2nd and 3rd stringers, by salary. So, your the coach, and your GM is telling you what the payroll # is, its your job to get to or under that number. The easiest way is by releasing the older practice player, and keep the younger less expensive player. Happens at the end of every training camp, older backup players are released in favor of younger, less experienced and cheaper replacements. Baseball, basketball, and most hockey players have guaranteed contracts, which takes that option away. And by default longer playing careers. Lets just watch the season, and let the players and owners worry about the contract.
      PS. In 1987 my Vikings made the playoffs, but by the skin of their teeth. My recollection is, the replacement players had 1 win and 2 losses, and we had a shortened season. They were eventually defeated by Washington in the NFC championship game.

    4. Larry said on August 17th, 2009 at 12:21pm #

      I find this article to be right on the money. I was raised in the inner city and played sports. Through great coaching and the chance to go to a private school on scholarship, I had even better coaching. The bottom line is that I ended up playing 8 years in the AFL/NFL. I am 64 now with many health issues. I can not get LTC insurance nor health insurance. I recently was awarded SSA Disability insurance. I have the proof from well know MD’s that my health issues are football related but have no recourse since the NFL Pension group said I didn’t meet their criteria.

      I am well educated and did very well post football; however at $34000 per year retiring at 28, the money went to college expenses and a business. My health bills ate up my income when I could not work anymore due to health issues.

      Why do the owners turn their back on former players and pay rookies millions. Go figure. We are not drunks or despots or irresponsible. We are players who left it all on the field and are now abandoned in our senior years by greedy owners and management. I don’t want big $, I wanted a chance to get health insurance and LTC help. The owners have the capacity to provide this type of health cooperative.

      Thanks for the time.