Why Would The NFL's Players' Union Decertify?
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
OK. There's football season and then there's football money season. We are in the latter. Billions of dollars and potentially the coming season are on the line. The NFL's collective bargaining agreement should have expired by now. But late yesterday, owners and players agreed to extend their deadline until midnight tonight. As NPR's Mike Pesca explains, the union enjoys a unique position with owners.
MIKE PESCA: Mice and cats, Redskins and Cowboys, owners and players union - all natural enemies, right? Nope. Just as Tom defined Jerry and Joe Gibbs respected Tom Landry, so too do the NFL owners, for all their bluster, actually need the union. Gabe Feldman is the director of Tulane University's sports law program.
Professor GABE FELDMAN (Sports law, Tulane University): Sports is probably the only industry where management begs their employees to unionize. They are in much better shape if their employees have a union.
PESCA: I'll explain this more in a second. But first, it's important to note that the players like their union too, especially this current collective bargaining agreement, which is set to expire unless there's another deadline extension. It was so remunerative for the union, the players would gladly sign onto it again.
The owners, on the other hand, want to re-slice the $9 billion revenue calzone. And they say they'd sooner lock out the players than pay them under terms of the old contract.
Owners will fight the union for the best deal, but they know Gabe Feldman is right. Without a union, 32 teams would all be individually negotiating 53 player contracts. There'd be no salary cap, no draft, no cost containment and no certainty. And there's the small detail that the presence of a union, by law, creates an antitrust exemption for the league.
The players know this, too, and that's why they very well might opt for what Northeastern University sports law Professor Roger Abrams deems the bomb.
Professor ROGER ABRAHAMS (Sports law, Northeastern University): It is the union threatening to commit suicide.
PESCA: It is decertification. The union will cease to be a union. That exposes the NFL to a suit under antitrust law. It is the exact play the union called back in 1989, and it was successful then. Abrams and Gabe Feldman think decertification could prove a winning tactic. Not every sports law expert agrees. Michael LeRoy teaches at the University of Illinois.
Professor MICHAEL LEROY (University of Illinois): I think it's a desperate strategy, myself. I think it has a low probability of success. Courts view professional sports as a different animal from any other kind of business.
PESCA: But even LeRoy says the union has nothing to lose by trying it. If the writing's on the wall that it won't work, they can re-undecertify. New verbs may be needed because these tactics are really rare in labor law, says Gabe Feldman of Tulane.
Prof. FELDMAN (Tulane): The NFL would be creating law here. We don't know if a group of owners can lock out a group of employees who have dissolved their union. That's completely unprecedented.
PESCA: At that point the fights would go to the court. And at the very least the sides would get a read on how strong their hands are. That's the key to getting a deal done.
Right now, both sides have been playing a game, but neither one really knows the score. Feldman, in fact, all the legal experts you've heard and a smattering of others I talked to, said a deal will get done because neither side stands to gain enough in the long run to forego one year's worth of revenue.
And while owners might foolishly trade away draft picks for big stars, and while players might occasionally hold the ball out and get stripped from behind, no one wants to fumble away the $9 billion football.
Mike Pesca, NPR News.
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