NFL Locked In Labor Negotiations

As the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to clash in Sunday's Superbowl, NFL team owners and players are locked in a battle of their own. Labor negotiations are at a virtual standstill and both sides have until March 3rd to agree on a new contract. Host Michel Martin speaks with sports editor at The Nation magazine, Dave Zirin, about the labor dispute and the chances for resolving it before next month's deadline.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

America's most watched sporting event is coming up this Sunday. Of course it's the Super Bowl. And we also know that the ads are almost as big as the game. But there's another ad campaign gearing up that we want to tell you about. It's about the very serious subject of sex trafficking and we'll tell you why activists are trying to grab some of the Super Bowl attention for themselves. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But, first, to the economics of pro football. You may know that the NFL's labor contract is in flux. The Pittsburg Steelers - the NFL's ongoing labor dispute between team owners and players is playing out alongside the hype of the big game. And here to talk about all this is Dave Zirin. He's a sports editor at the political journal, The Nation, and a regular contributor to our weekly Barbershop segment. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Sports Editor, The Nation): Great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: No, Dave, we know you have an opinion about this, but before we get to your point of view about this, I just want you to set the table for us for people who aren't following the story. What is specifically in dispute here?

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. Very basically, NFL owners want players to basically work more and be paid less. And that's not my opinion, that's just a fact. They want to move the number of games from 16 to 18 and NFL owners also feel like the players have too large a share of the revenue. They feel like they were absolutely taken to the cleaners at the last collective bargaining agreement in 2006. They felt like it was an unfair division of the revenue produced by the NFL and they want about 20 percent back.

MARTIN: How much do the players get now?

Mr. ZIRIN: Right now, it depends on which accountants you talk to, but it's generally considered players get roughly 59 percent of all revenue.

MARTIN: And what about the labor side of it? What about the player side of it? What's their perspective?

Mr. ZIRIN: The players' perspective is that they want to keep the existing contract and they're trying to say - the whole slogan for their campaign is, let us play. They're saying, what's wrong with existing contract? The NFL is the most popular league by far in the United States. It's a golden goose. Let's just play in the existing agreement. Do not lock us out.

MARTIN: I think one of the interesting things about this dispute is that in previous lockouts, the protagonists were the players, if I have that right. Now it's the owners.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. And there were strikes. I mean, there were players walking out because they wanted more wages, better benefits. This is a case of owners saying that March 1st they are going to lock the doors. And even more than that, they're going to suspend health benefits for players as well, which is a big deal when you think about how many off season surgeries take place among NFL players.

So it really will throw things into turmoil, but NFL owners feel like they can weather it because they're still guaranteed TV money even if there are no games this fall. That's written into their television contracts and it makes them feel like they have the ability to weather this because they feel like it's in the best long-term interest in the league if they have more capital to use to build the league. And they feel like too much of it has been taken away in the last collective bargaining agreement.

MARTIN: Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, who's the head of the NFL players union, Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, met face to face on Monday in New York. Now, you have a perspective on this. You wrote about in The New Yorker where you say, part of the issue here is - there's one team, the Packers, that are actually owned by a nonprofit. Tell us a little bit about that in the minute and a half we have left.

Mr. ZIRIN: It's a bit of an embarrassment in the Super Bowl, but in a year in which the owners have threatened throughout the season to lock out next year, you have one of the teams in the Super Bowl that does not really have an owner. Although, that's not really true that they don't have an owner. They just have 112,000 of them. 112,000 people own shares in the Green Bay Packers and it's created a structure. You could strongly make the case that if every team was community owned, we wouldn't be looking at a lockout.

MARTIN: When you say in your piece in The New Yorker and we're linked to it, you say, in the United States we socialize the debt of sports and privatize the profits. Green Bay stands as a living, breathing and for the owners, frightening example that pro sports can aid our cities in tough economic times, not drain them of scarce public resources. So that's...

Mr. ZIRIN: Sixty percent of all proceeds of the Green Bay Packers go directly to local charities.

MARTIN: Normally in this minute we have left I'd ask you who you think is going to win the big game on Sunday.

Mr. ZIRIN: I'll tell you if you'd like.

MARTIN: OK. Well, tell me briefly.

Mr. ZIRIN: I like the Packers.

MARTIN: OK. But I've - well, we know why. But I think the bigger question is, who do you think is going to win this war of wills between the owners and the players in this go around?

Mr. ZIRIN: It's going to be very tough. But it is a golden goose. I expect them to work it out. It's all about the terms.

MARTIN: Dave Zirin is a sports editor at The Nation. He's a regular contributor to our weekly Barbershop segment. He's also the author of "Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love." And he was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much.

Mr. ZIRIN: My privilege, Michel.

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