The NFL owners’ surprising argument in favor of unions

OK, so we all know that a labor dispute between millionaires and billionaires, as the halting negotiations for a new agreement between the NFL’s players and owners have been described, is a different sort of animal than your typical fight between union workers and company managers. But I didn’t realize just how weird the situation was until I read the argument by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal yesterday.

As you read the following section of the op-ed, keep in mind that Goodell represents the owners (i.e., the capital side of the equation):

In the union lawyers’ world, every player would enter the league as an unrestricted free agent, an independent contractor free to sell his services to any team. Every player would again become an unrestricted free agent each time his contract expired. And each team would be free to spend as much or as little as it wanted on player payroll or on an individual player’s compensation.

Any league-wide rule relating to terms of player employment would be subject to antitrust challenge in courts throughout the country. Any player could sue — on his own behalf or representing a class — to challenge any league rule that he believes unreasonably restricts the “market” for his services.

Under this vision, players and fans would have none of the protections or benefits that only a union (through a collective-bargaining agreement) can deliver. What are the potential ramifications for players, teams, and fans? Here are some examples:

No draft. “Why should there even be a draft?” said player agent Brian Ayrault. “Players should be able to choose who they work for. Markets should determine the value of all contracts. Competitive balance is a fallacy.”

No minimum team payroll. Some teams could have $200 million payrolls while others spend $50 million or less.

No minimum player salary. Many players could earn substantially less than today’s minimums.

No standard guarantee to compensate players who suffer season- or career-ending injuries. Players would instead negotiate whatever compensation they could.

No league-wide agreements on benefits. The generous benefit programs now available to players throughout the league would become a matter of individual club choice and individual player negotiation. (italics original)

He goes on, but you get the point. How strange is it to see the owners (capital) arguing against the players (labor) in favor of such matters as higher minimum payrolls and salaries, and reminding them of “the protections [and] benefits that only a union…can deliver”? What gives?

The key point, I think, is the part about antitrust protection for the league. As I understand it, the NFL, unlike major league baseball, gets its antitrust protection via its collective bargaining agreement with its players. That’s why the players’ move to decertify their union was important. And the reason antitrust is an overriding concern for the owners is that we don’t consider a sports league like the NFL in the proper market.

NFL teams compete with each other on the field. But the NFL as a league competes with MLB, the NBA, the NHL, college sports, auto racing — as well as movie theaters, music concerts, monster truck rallies, rodeos.

That is, the NFL is one competitor in the marketplace for entertainment dollars. As well as, via its contracts with TV networks, advertising dollars.

The Atlanta Falcons competed with the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs last year — OK, “competed” may be too strong a word, given the way the game went — but the Falcons and Packers don’t compete with one another for your entertainment dollars. Instead, the Falcons compete with the Braves, Hawks, Thrashers, Bulldogs, Yellow Jackets, other entertainment events at the Georgia Dome, Philips Arena and elsewhere in metro Atlanta.

As an aside, this reality is one reason a new sports stadium does not necessarily contribute to large-scale economic growth beyond the construction jobs needed to build it. Any additional fans attracted to the venue probably would have spent the same amount of money elsewhere if it weren’t built.

There is, however, one similarity between the NFL’s bizarre dispute and more standard-issue labor negotiations: If they’re not careful, each side will be tempted to make a short-term deal that hurts their long-term interests.

– By Kyle Wingfield

Find me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter

20 comments Add your comment


April 27th, 2011
6:50 am

Interesting column, Kyle.

One point you left out was that the NFL has revenue sharing for the teams, which contributes to parity on the field. Left to a purely capitalistic economic model, Green Bay (as a team) would probably not exist, as well as many of the other small market teams. To paraphrase Art Modell (owner of the Ravens), NFL owners are mostly (except for Arthur Blank, a known Democratic supporter) a bunch of Republicans who vote for socialism.

The owners have a really good thing going right now. The players, with good reason, are happy with the status quo. I hope they don’t screw it up.

Road Scholar

April 27th, 2011
7:15 am

I was wondering when an article on the NFL union would appear. Just remember the conservative mantra: Union Bad; Management Good! and the slogan: management will look out for their workers!


April 27th, 2011
7:24 am

The freedom to assemble and form a union is protected by the constitution.

So why is the GOP so anti-union?

But they are pro-gun freedom. But also anti-Sunday liquor freedom. Exactly which freedoms does the GOP want us to have, and when can i exercise them. That’s all I’m asking is for directions from those who obviously have all the answers.


April 27th, 2011
7:33 am

The NFL doesn’t work without the fans. Money for stadiums, salaries, concessions, retirement benefits, etc., won’t be there if nobody comes to watch them play. This whole back-and-forth is based on the assumption that fans will continue to support the NFL at at least current levels. All of their arguments are moot if people don’t pay to watch. Interesting that the biggest and most relevant stakeholders to the issues don’t have a seat at the table. Boys, I can just as easily spend my money elsewhere.

Road Scholar

April 27th, 2011
7:34 am

Freedom; Because their god, business and the alledged free market, can do no wrong. Trickle down, yeah, right!


April 27th, 2011
7:43 am

but we’ll keep building bombs while our schools crumble and our parents rot with unaffordable healthcare. I’m starting to get it I think…


April 27th, 2011
7:55 am

Interesting article Kyle, lots to think about on both ends of the spectrum.


April 27th, 2011
7:57 am

Unlike the NFL union, when labor unions “bargain”, they actually end up costing everyone more.


April 27th, 2011
8:00 am

Funny how an NFL dispute somehow brings out the loony left, how does the GOP have anything to do with the NFL union?

Common Since

April 27th, 2011
8:34 am

“each side will be tempted to make a short-term deal that hurts their long-term interests.” Like Congress’s ongoing, short-term budgetary and tax compromises?


April 27th, 2011
8:39 am

@commoncents – that’s unconstitutional


April 27th, 2011
8:39 am

If there had been no union in the USA, we would not have the 40 hour work week, workermans comp,health insurance etc.Also we would not have a middle class which is rapidly disappearing.


April 27th, 2011
8:48 am

The problem with what Goddell is saying is that the Owners were the ones that opted out of the CBA and locked out the players.

I have zero sympathy for everyone involved in this dispute.


April 27th, 2011
8:53 am

All the convoluted and strange legal language does not hide the fact that money is the one and only issue here. The players want to earn as much as they possibly can. The owners want to pay the players as little as possible. They will eventually make some sort of compromise, almost certainly short-term, and go back to business as usual.

Road Scholar

April 27th, 2011
9:00 am

Fix It: One word: Wisconson!

Dirty Dawg

April 27th, 2011
9:30 am

…Arthur Blank, a known Democratic supporter?…you say that like he’s a ‘known’ Communist sympathizer, or a ‘known’ terrorist, or a ‘tu*d’ or something. Also, seems to me I recall him being a big contributor to Geedubya Bush back when he was readying his run at bankrupting the country.

Regardless, this whole owner/player thing is ‘our greed versus your greed’ and in the end the fans pay the bill.


April 27th, 2011
9:34 am

Fix-it. You answered your own question, they ARE looney!

call me dude

April 27th, 2011
10:23 am

Football is a kids game, nothing more and nothing less. If someone wants to pay an adult many millions of dollars to play a kids game, that is his business. As for the fans, they are eager to see an adult, making millions playing a kids game, eventhough the fan is spending his last dime to watch it. Is it any wonder that China will repace the U.S. as the #1 Economic Engine in the world?


April 27th, 2011
10:50 am

The union has done good for the players over the years; the owners are not missing any meals.

Hillbilly Deluxe

April 27th, 2011
11:09 am

Every player would again become an unrestricted free agent each time his contract expired.

And what would be wrong with that? How can you be obligated to somebody, if you aren’t under contract?

And while we’re at it, let’s let the owners foot the bill for their stadiums, instead of the taxpayers.