Alarming labor strife is not end of world
By Bernie Miklasz
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Much to our surprise, another day came and went and the sky did not fall on top of NFL stadiums. The only ominous rumble was more of a squeak, emitting from the voice of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
"The situation is about as dire as dire can be," Tagliabue said Thursday morning.
Amazingly, the Edward Jones Dome is still standing.
And by late Thursday afternoon, the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to extend its deadline for free agency by three days. This cool-down pause also gave the two sides another opportunity, if desired, to reopen negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.
Perhaps Tagliabue and NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw will settle their differences this weekend. That's a longshot. But either way, please be wary of the voices of doom out there, predicting the end of the NFL as we know it.
The NFL always has had a heightened sense of drama. After all, this is the only professional sports league with its own film-making division. And it's been a while (1987) since we've witnessed genuine labor discord in the NFL.
So when Tagliabue and Upshaw broke the glass on a few alarm boxes, we saw an almost universal overreaction to their impasse. Granted, Tagliabue and Upshaw have gotten along so famously through the years it's surprising to see them acting like Bud Selig and Don Fehr, or Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow.
Upshaw and Tagliabue have managed to avoid dueling since Tagliabue became the commish in 1989, but a clash was inevitable, because the NFL's pile of money has reached enormous proportions. With so much at stake, Tagliabue and Upshaw aren't above old-fashioned, sports-labor posturing.
But this is no Armageddon. We didn't even have the "Bloody Thursday" crisis as predicted by hysterical NFL pundits who had fans convinced that dozens of veteran players would be rounded up, placed on waivers and thrown off the side of a cliff into a river so NFL owners could save salary-cap dollars.
The reality is, the Rams and the 31 other NFL franchises are open for business. And a full schedule of NFL games will be played in 2006 and 2007. And after the 2007 season, the current bargaining agreement will expire. That's right: the owners and the players have two years to close the gap on a new CBA before the NFL is thrown into a true crisis.
In the meantime, owners will continue to pull in astronomical amounts of revenue, players will continue to receive astoundingly generous paychecks, and the fans will continue to enrich both sides by enjoying the nation's most popular spectator sport.
The only thing that will change between now and the end of the 2007 season is accounting.
Unless Taglaibue and Upshaw can get something done this weekend, the scheduled $105 million per-team salary cap will be set at $94.5 million instead. And yes, many NFL teams will be forced to cut pricey veterans to stay under the cap. But that's nothing new in the modern NFL. Even at $94.5 million, the 2006 per-team salary cap would be about $10 million higher than last season.
The smart, more cautious teams prepared for this scenario and won't feel the sting. The more cavalier, undisciplined teams that planned for the higher cap amount will have to scramble to meet the $94.5 million number. So more players will be out on the streets. That will create some inconvenience for agents and team capologists.
So where is crisis?
Where are the ruins of modern NFL civilization?
The Chicken Littles are clucking over the prospect of an uncapped 2007 season, which automatically goes into place if no agreement is reached between now and then.
Having no salary cap surely would lead to chaos. Some owners - Washington's Dan Snyder is the most likely candidate - would go on a spending spree to rival that of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
However, the few NFL teams spending like mad would be countered by other franchises spending less. In an uncapped system, NFL teams would not be obligated to have a minimum player payroll, as they are now.
And in the devised uncapped system, the players would lose some freedom. Instead of becoming unrestricted free agents after four seasons (as it is now) they'll have to wait until the end of their sixth year to be eligible.
In an uncapped system, we'd see more of a baseball model. That's the long-term danger - that the NFL would resemble Major League Baseball, with increasing financial disparity between the franchises. But let's not overstate the potential repercussions. All NFL teams are paid handsomely through radio-TV broadcast revenue, and all NFL teams can build through the draft. So even in an uncapped NFL, all teams can compete. There wouldn't be NFL versions of the Kansas City Royals or Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who are economically doomed from the start.
The negotiations will be difficult. Before Tagliabue can twist Upshaw's strong arm, the commissioner needs to get all 32 NFL owners in line. Because some of the wealthiest NFL franchises with the newest stadiums are reluctant to share their revenue windfall with the lower-end NFL teams. Unless the NFL owners agree to go on as equal partners - the NFL way - Tagliabue can't persuade Upshaw to make financial sacrifices.
There's time to work this out. The sky over NFL stadiums is cloudy. But it isn't falling.
Re: Alarming labor strife is not end of world
Well, you see, Bernie, that's why you're a newspaper writer and not the CEO of a major company.
As you note - almost in passing - if today's problems lead, in the long run, to a league with no salary cap, the NFL would be in big trouble. You casually mention that the NFL could look like MLB, with significant financial disparities impacting player rosters. I guess you don't get how bad that can be. Maybe its because you're in a city with a baseball team that has fared well in such a system. But take a look at the Marlins, Devil Rays, Royals, Pirates, etc., etc., etc.
I believe the problems will, in fact, be worked out. But make no mistake... if they are not, in the long run, that will be a very bad thing.