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The NFL and the Art of Being Screwed (Article)

The NFL and the Art of Being Screwed


Most of the surface level problems we encounter in life are merely symptoms of larger issues that have gone unaddressed for a prolonged period of time. The problem the League is facing was years in the making. 

The NFL is a legalized monopoly, and one of the byproducts of a monopoly is that a pattern of poor decisions either goes unpunished (because there is no competition around to capitalize on mistakes) or is only punished after an immense amount of damage has already been inflicted. After years of their hubris going unchecked, all of the NFL’s debt has come due at once. That debt cannot be paid back with cash, gold, or silver. It can only be paid with trust, and league management (when I refer to management, I’m including owners as well as league personnel, such as Roger Goodell) have absolutely no trust or credibility with the players. 

Any well run business has a high amount of respect for its employees, and in turn, its employees have a high amount of respect for their employers. With respect comes healthy dialogue, and after a prolonged relationship based on respect and communication, trust is established. The problem is the NFL is not a well run business. Make no mistake, it is a highly profitable business, but that is by virtue of the fact that it is a monopoly. They almost can’t help but make money because there is no viable alternative. The only thing they can do is screw it up…

The reason I’m saying the NFL is not a well-run business is because management — in the pursuit of maximizing profits in the short-term —  has knee-capped the league’s long-term profits by alienating their own employees. 

The league rarely misses an opportunity to take advantage of the leverage created by their monopoly. From the 1974 strike for free agency (no concessions made), to the 1987 strike for free agency (they brought in replacement players… and no concessions made), the league stone-walled the players. Then in 2011, the league forced the players to take a lower share of revenue, which was odd seeing how the league was making more money than ever due to TV contracts (that TV deal was signed in 2011. The same year they forced the players to take a pay cut because league management ostensibly had budgetary concerns). In addition to being forced into a pay cut despite the league seeing record profits (which is akin to your company not giving raises to the working man despite management receiving millions in stock options), one has to consider the prior existing conditions the players were operating in. 

NFL contracts are written on toilet paper. Not literally, but they may as well be. A team can sign a player to a contract, cut him the next day, and if there’s no guaranteed money in that contract, they owe him nothing. But isn’t the term “guaranteed contract” an oxymoron? What is a contract if it is not a guarantee? And how is it fair that the party issuing the contract can renege at any time and the party signing it cannot? 

In the NBA and in Major League Baseball, a contract is a legal document that binds both parties. In the NFL, they are only binding to the players (perhaps a lawyer out there can explain the legality of a monopoly issuing contracts that are binding to its employees, but not the employer). It’s a sweet deal for the owner’s. If a guy gets hurt, you cut him and replace him, free of charge. There’s even a saying among players: “You can’t make the club in the tub.” That means if you’re injured, you better find a way to play through it, because if you don’t, you’re out of a job and your contract is worth less than the paper it was printed on.

Another poor decision NFL management has gotten away with for a long time is Roger Goodell playing the role of judge, jury and executioner in any and all issues of discipline within the league. Roger Goodell’s virtually unlimited power was yet another gift of the 2011 CBA, and not a year goes by when Goodell doesn’t (ab)use that authority. 

Ask Tom Brady.

Even worse, the league seems to make up the rules as they go, moving the goal posts to wherever they’re standing and chuckling to themselves when the players complain about it. Hell, the appeals process consists of Roger Goodell reviewing his own decisions with no third-party oversight! The league didn’t even think it worthwhile to pretend to be fair and objective because they know they don’t have to be. They are the NFL, they are a legal monopoly, and there’s nothing the players can do. All of these decisions have maximized the control and profit of league management, but it came at a cost that is only now being revealed. 

Trust is like insurance: you don’t need it until you need it. League management has never needed the trust of the players before. It was a mere luxury that got in the way of ever increasing profits. It didn’t matter that the players didn’t trust management because management had all of the power and didn’t hesitate to use it. As a player, if you had a problem with the NFL, the most you could do is complain about the league to the newspaper… which could result in a fine. If the NFL has a problem with a player, they can fine him an arbitrary amount of money, suspend him an arbitrary amount of games, and the appeals process consists of Roger Goodell rubber-stamping his own decision.

If things got serious and the players decided to strike, the owners could simply wait them out. Most players only have 2–3 years to make as much money as they can, while the owners make money as long as they own the team. That meant that the players are incentivized to think short-term while the owners are incentivized to play the long game. It’s a significant reason why a strike has never worked in the NFL. 

The protests have done something no strike has ever done in the NFL: put the players in a position of strength. In the past, whenever league management had problems with the players, they could simply use their overwhelming leverage to get the players in line with what the league wanted. Now that the league has realized that force is not a viable option, they don’t seem to know what to do. 

I must say it once more. Trust is like insurance: you don’t need it until you need it. Right now, the league needs the trust of the players more than ever, but there isn’t a drop of it to be found. Since force is off the table, dialogue is the league’s only option, but there seems to be a sizable percentage of ownership that is borderline offended by the idea that they have to speak — and listen — to their own players.

I’m sure Bob McNair genuinely regrets his “inmates running the prison” comment. I am willing to believe that that comment doesn’t reflect who he is as a person. However, the analogy is quite accurate in representing the nature of the relationship the NFL is used to having with its players. This is the first time the league cannot play the role of judge, jury, executioner, and appeals court without doing immense damage to its own brand, which is the only thing that seems to count for something in league offices. 

To be clear, the players ARE NOT protesting the flag, they are protesting social injustice. They ARE NOT protesting the police. They are protesting police brutality. These issues mean something to the players, and they were willing to fight for these issues before the NFL essentially black-balled Colin Kaepernick. 

By reacting with force to Colin Kaepernick, NFL management has unintentionally combined two large problems into a single massive one: a lack of social justice outside of the league with a lack of overall justice within the league. 

This critical mistake has left the players no room to cooperate with the league without also appearing to cave in on something that it is of the utmost importance to them. 

This brings us to a subtle factor that is making a satisfying resolution more difficult to reach. When you take away all of the strategy and tactics, football at its core is about imposing your will on another man. That’s it. The game attracts people who are fighters, people who are trained from their earliest days to never allow another man to back them down. The players who have managed to fight their way to the NFL are the men who best fit this paradigm. They are Type-A alpha dogs. It may very well be the case that the nature of the game has attracted a contingent of owners who think the same way. If the interests of the owner’s and players were more explicitly aligned, this could actually serve as the basis for a more fruitful alliance. But as long as they are pitted against each other, it means a bar-fight is inevitable. For the first time, the league doesn’t have the leverage to stop it before it gets out of hand because the “problem” (the protests) are out of their jurisdiction. 

The problem the league is facing is a case study on what it is to be screwed. With a possible exception for the teams on the coasts, most of the fans want the players to stand. The media and league sponsors think the players should have the right to kneel, but (and this is pure conjecture) I wouldn’t be shocked if behind closed doors many of them would prefer for the players to stand as well. If the league tries to force the players to stand, they will likely face a full blown mutiny and see far more players kneel. If the players continue to kneel, the league will likely be attacked, again, by the sitting president of the United States and the NFL risks a fair number of its fans turning their back on the league for good. Viewership is down around the league (though it’s questionable if it’s because of the protests) and sponsors are already getting antsy, so ownership wants this thing to go away NOW.

Remember when I said the league maximized short-term profits by knee-capping the long-term health and profitability of the league? Well, we are seeing it play out before our eyes. If the league had behaved responsibly in the past and not abused the leverage afforded to them by their monopoly, they would not be in this position. 

Consider that the NBA actually mandates that players stand for the anthem, and they do it without complaints because the players and Adam Silver have a positive relationship. Even then, the NBA should consider itself fortunate that this issue didn’t arise during the David Stern era (a good commissioner by and large, but he had a more autocratic method of leadership). In the NBA, the players and the commissioner had trust before any of this happened, and that trust is carrying them through .

The NFL is finding out the hard way that it is difficult to develop trust in the middle of a crisis. If the league had the trust of the players, they could bring them in and listen to their concerns and in turn be heard when they explain their own concerns. To their credit, it seems that the league is trying to build a bridge to the players. However — in light of their past behavior —  it seems like those attempts are forced and temporary, and it won’t be long before the league is burning those bridges once again.