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Union poses 10 questions to NFL

Commissioner Roger Goodell recently acknowledged that meetings between the NFL and its players’ union have been sparse of late. If the two sides won’t be communicating in person, why not post questions to each other on their web sites?

Really, what could go wrong?

Earlier this week, the NFLPA listed 10 open questions to the league. Questions aimed, in our view, not at getting actual answers but in coaxing the media and/or the fans to start asking the same questions.

Here they are, with our observations after each one.

1. Will you guarantee to the players and the fans, today, that there will not be a lockout at the start of the 2011 season?

Our take: The union knows that the NFL will never do this; the threat of a lockout creates leverage, especially since NFLPA Executive Director De Smith has persuaded the players that a lockout is coming. So even without the NFL ever having to utter the word “lockout,” the players will believe that the alternative to not taking the best deal is a lockout, regardless of whether a lockout ever would be imposed.

2. Why did the players have to sue the NFL on behalf of small-market teams, which were owed approximately $20M, to maintain the Supplemental Revenue Sharing program?

Our take: This question contains clever, but misleading, drafting by the union. The NFLPA didn’t sue “on behalf of the small-market teams.” The union sued on behalf of the players, and the small-market teams received a benefit that, presumably, they didn’t want. The league intended Supplemental Revenue Sharing to end upon evaporation of the salary floor, since a per-team salary floor based on the total football revenues of all teams drives up the relative labor costs of the teams earning far less than the teams that earn the most. Apparently, the lawyers screwed up when writing up the language regarding the expiration of Supplemental Revenue Sharing, and it gave the union a way to force more money into the pockets of the small-market teams -- which bolsters an eventual claim of collusion if the small-market teams don’t spend their unexpected windfall on players.

3. Why did the NFL tell the public that the players never proposed an increase in former player benefits and health care when every CBA meeting has included such a proposal from the players?

Our take: This question apparently responds to the March 9, 2010 letter from Commissioner Roger Goodell to Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, a copy of which recently was posted at "[W]hen the union last week informed us that it was willing to make a new deal under certain conditions, there was no mention by them of increased benefits for retirees. The union leadership was willing to make a deal without any improvements for retired players.” The deal that was proposed by the union was aimed at freezing the salary cap in place for another year; it wasn’t a comprehensive offer aimed at addressing every issue. On this point, then, the NFLPA apparently has a good point, and it’s very unfortunate that the league took the union’s last-ditch effort to avoid an uncapped year out of context.

So why did the league do it? For the same reason that the NFLPA routinely suggests that the league wants a lockout in order to collect $5 billion in guaranteed television revenues. Both sides are trying to win the P.R. battle instead of focusing exclusively on doing a deal, and both sides are taking periodic liberties with reality in order to do so.

4. Where Dat [sic] Billion dollar expense credit go to that is deducted directly off-the-top of all league revenues?

Our take: This question is irrelevant to the broader question of whether the league believes management should retain a bigger piece of the pie, in the hopes of growing a much larger pie. But it’s an effective way of reminding the media and the public that the league already removes $1 billion before cutting up the current pie, and of coaxing the media and the public into asking why the league needs more than $1 billion per year off the top.

5. Why is a deal which generated close to $9B in revenues and produced record profits worth messing with?

Our take: The deal didn’t generate $9 billion. The game did. Also, the profits were hardly record-setting. Indeed, last month Executive Director De Smith scoffed at the notion that the Packers’ operating profit dropped from $34 million in one year to $20 million in the next. That’s a dramatic drop, but Smith essentially laughed off the obvious concerns that such a drop triggers.

6. Why did the NFL and NFL team owners embrace an uncapped year and not preserve a salary cap system that gives every team a chance to win on any given Sunday?

Our take: Why did the NFLPA for years use the threat of the uncapped year to get a new deal done? In 2006, in the face of a threat from the late Gene Upshaw that once the cap goes away it’s never coming back, the league accepted the union’s “take it or leave it” proposal a year before the uncapped year would have started. The tables have now turned, and the union doesn’t like it. Also, given the tools of the uncapped year aimed at preserving competitive balance (such as the expanded use of restricted free agency and the “Final Eight Plan”), the system that caused the Rams to go 1-15 in 2009 and the Lions to go 0-16 in 2008 and the Dolphins to go 1-15 in 2007 is still in place. For better or worse.

7. Why are NFL players not given the opportunity to share in the financial risks and rewards associated with owning any NFL franchise that (according to Forbes) increased on average by 500% in the past 15 years?

Our take: We’re not sure what this means. Do they want partial ownership in the teams? Moreover, it’s our understanding that some factions within ownership are trying to engineer a deal that simulates the risks and rewards of holding equity in the teams.

8. Why does the NFL not tell its fans how much each franchise makes in profit?

Our take: This question blatantly panders to the fans, and it reflects no real sense of how a business operates.

9. Why does the NFL not tell its fans, especially DirecTV subscribers, the full details of the guaranteed media and network contracts?

Our take: The “full details” (or, at a minimum, the details relevant to the payments that would be made in the event of a work stoppage) have been reported publicly, and the key details have been subtly misrepresented by De Smith, who has suggested that the league deliberately has created an incentive to shut down for a season in order to collect a $5 billion windfall.

10. Why does the NFL continue to claim expenses have grown faster than revenues when it continuously refuses to provide audited financial statements as support?

Our take: It’s a great question -- and we continue to believe that true partners would and should share this information freely. We realize that the league has reasons for not wanting the information to be released and then scrutinized, especially if there are owners whose family members draw a sizable salary in exchange for allowing their names to appear on the door of an office they never visit. Still, the league deftly has created a sense that it’s losing money without coming out and saying that it’s losing money, since the league knows that doing so would create a legal obligation to open the books.

The better approach would be for the league to explain candidly that, yes, its teams are profitable but, no, the current levels of profits are not acceptable given the value of the businesses and goal of continuously growing the worth of each franchise. Though it’s the truth, such an admission would be used by the union as further ammunition in the battle for the hearts and minds of the fans.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter. This is a fight between millionaires and billionaires; the folks who live paycheck to paycheck but who manage to set aside enough cash to go to one game per year and/or purchase NFL Sunday Ticket or the RedZone channel or at a minimum watch the games on “free” TV (and thus drive up the ratings points) aren’t going to pick sides in a fight between millionaires and billionaires, no matter how much more the billionaires have than the millionaires. Both sides have far more than 99 percent of the fans, many of whom regard someone with $100,000 in the bank as being every bit as rich as someone with $100 million.

The public wants their NFL football, and the public will blame both sides equally if their NFL football goes away for all or part of a season. When both sides realize this, both sides will stop trying to get the public on their side. And maybe, just maybe, a deal that’s fair to everyone will emerge.