Making sense of impending NFL labor dispute

February 09, 2010|By Peter Schmuck

While the NFL's union and management suits prepare to tarnish another one of our favorite pastimes with a protracted labor dispute, I'd like to join in the chorus of common sense.

I certainly will not be the first to caution the owners and players that they've got too much going for them to turn pro football into a collective bargaining trainwreck. The warning signs have become more and more visible over the past year. Former Ravens coach Brian Billick even devoted a large chunk of his recent book -- "More Than a Game" -- to the notion that everyone associated with the NFL has way too much to lose in this greedy game of chicken.

If the sport were on economic life support, it would be a different story, but all you had to do was watch the Super Bowl on Sunday and read the overnight ratings to see that the NFL is at the peak of its popularity. The league and its players certainly have some legitimate issues with the current labor relationship -- or else there would be no dispute -- but there is nothing on either side of the table right now that is worth enough to justify trashing the 2011 season.

We've all seen what can happen when both sides are stubborn enough to blow up a successful sport. It doesn't even seem that long ago that Bud Selig stood at a lectern in Milwaukee in September of 1994 and announced the cancellation of the World Series. The fallout from baseball's 18-month dance with economic disaster remained toxic for years, prompting a major fan backlash and perhaps contributing to the sport's blind eye to a growing steroid problem.

Times have changed, but the rhetoric that surrounds a situation like this always sounds the same. The owners are complaining that they don't get to keep enough of industry revenues to assure that every franchise remains healthy. The union leaders are demanding that the teams open their books to prove the economic necessity of any change in the current system.

That should sound pretty familiar if you were around for any of the baseball work stoppages, not just the 1994 war to end all labor wars. Baseball owners said many of their clubs were losing money despite billions in revenue. The players union was skeptical, but pointed to rising franchise values as a counterbalance to any short-term economic hardship.

Football is a different animal, of course. Most NFL stadiums are full every week, and the fans aren't likely to walk away from their PSLs because of a labor stoppage, but that's no reason to take pro football's popularity for granted.

The owners aren't claiming that they can't make any money. They just want a bigger piece of a growing pie. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti tried to put the ownership position in perspective at last week's "State of the Ravens" media conference when he pointed out that there are whole teams making about as much as one of their star linebackers.

Bisciotti also used the struggling Jacksonville Jaguars as an example that not all NFL teams are rolling in dough, but that probably wasn't the best example to use around these parts. We always knew that Jacksonville wasn't a great place to put an NFL expansion franchise, and we've got the museums to prove it.

No doubt, any claim of economic hardship from either side is going to bring a collective "boo-hoo" from football fans who are battling through a horrible economic downturn while they continue to pay premium -- and sometimes still rising -- prices for their seats at stadiums that, for the most part, were built at public expense. But that's really not the issue.

The owners and players have every right to bargain over who gets how much of the revenue from their sport. They have every right to trade claims and counter claims about whatever they want. They've even got the right to drive the NFL off a collective bargaining cliff the way Major League Baseball did in the 1990s.

I'm just hoping both sides learn from history this time, instead of dooming themselves to repeat it.

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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