In the NFL labor wars, it's all relative

In the NFL labor wars, it's all relative
March 14, 2011, 8:51 am
Share This Post

By Michael Felger

After decades as a doormat, NFL players have gotten tough. Good for them. It's about time.

They've also grown acutely suspicious and distrustful, for which you can hardly blame them, either.

The germination of the current labor impasse is the owners' demand for more money from the players for "operating expenses.'' The initial demand was for 1 billion, which would be in addition to the 1 billion the owners already collect off an estimated 9.3 billion in total gross revenue. The owners' asking price was said to be down to 325 million by the time talks blew up last Friday.

Remember, the owners were saying for years they couldn't survive without that extra billion, which turned out to be quite a claim, since they'll now apparently accept 675 million less than that. But that's not what would make me most suspicious if I were a player. After all, that's just negotiating.

No, if I were a player I'd keep going back to those "operating expenses.'' The owners say the new funds will be used to grow the game (new stadiums, new media expansion, overseas opportunities, etc). But, naturally, the money will also be used to pay employees and cover expenses incurred in the operation of the league and its teams. And if the owners say they need more money to operate the game, isn't it reasonable for the players to ask for more details about those operations since it's coming out of their pocket?

Yes, these are private businesses, and as such they are not required to open their books. But the owners generate their profits through a revenue split with the players. And in a revenue-split model, when one side asks for a greater slice of that revenue at the expense of the other, there usually has to be a justification for it.

It would be one thing if the players trusted the owners. But the owners haven't come close to earning the players' trust, especially after the Robert Kraft-negotiated TV deal was blown up in federal court two weeks ago.

That deal would have provided the owners with lockout insurance at the expense of additional revenue that should have been split with the players. Remember Kraft scolding the players at the Super Bowl for bringing that action to court, as Tom E. Curran so brilliantly pointed out? If the players had taken his advice and gotten the lawyers out of the room, they would have lost most of their leverage.

After hearing that, would you trust this guy if you were a player?

But it goes beyond that. Just look at the first few names on any given NFL masthead. Consider for a moment how these teams might be run at the very top.

Start in Arizona, where Bill Bidwill, who inherited the team, is chairmanowner, his son Michael is team president and his other son, Bill Jr., is a vice president. Or check out Dallas, where Jerry Jones is the owner, president and general manager, Stephen Jones is the COO and director of player personnel, Jerry Jones Jr. is an executive VP and chief sales and marketing officer and Charlotte Jones Anderson is the VP of brand management (whatever that is). Or how about Minnesota, where Zygi Wilf is the ownerchairman, Mark Wilf is the ownerpresident, Leonard Wilf is the ownervice chairman and Jeffrey Wilf is an ownership partner (whatever that is). Cincinnati has always been a good one, too, where Mike Brown is the president, Katie Blackburn (Brown's daughter) is the executive VP, Pete Brown is the senior VP of player personnel and Paul Brown is the VP of player personnel.

Sort of feels like Bushwood Country Club, doesn't it?

We'd like to introduce our new VP in charge of brand management, Spaulding Smails.

Try reading up on Bill Bidwill sometime. I say "try," because there doesn't seem to be much there. It seems the length of his accomplishments entail being born and inheriting a football team. If Bidwill has had any other job in his life (he was in the Navy for a time in his 20s), or earned a dime from anyone other than the Cardinals, I couldn't find it. His net worth is still said to be in the hundreds of millions. He's said to enjoy military history, cars, coffee and food.

Oh, and losing football games.

Okay, so NFL front offices have become the lucky sperm club. In some places these family members actually work (unfortunately for the fans in Dallas and Cincinnati, the Joneses and Browns really do pick the players). In other places the owners wouldn't know if the ball is puffed or stuffed (in the last 63 years under Bidwill family ownership, the Cards have won a grand total of three playoff games).

The point is that the sperm club salaries fall under the heading, "operating expenses.'' So do their business expenses.

Again, before the players give the owners more money off the top of the gross revenue pie, don't you think it's fair for them to ask just what goes into those expenses in the first place?

What if, for example, some of these family members make as much as the left tackle? Would that surprise you? It wouldn't surprise me. And all the owners must draw a salary, right? Look at some of their titles. Some of them hold three positions. Does that mean three salaries? Whatever, all that money qualifies as an operating expense. So do private planes and company trips. And when it's a private business, there's no reason why that trip can't be in Vail and Spaulding's car can't be a Bentley. It's just another "operating expense."

Do you get it, now?

The owners would be better off just saying they think the players are making too much. Then there'd be no explanations necessary. You're making too much. We want more. Plain and simple. It's capitalism. We'd all get it.

But when owners say they need the money to operate the game, then shouldn't the specifics of that operation be on the table?

Maybe the owners operate their teams on tight budgets with few perks. Maybe there are no frivolous salaries or needless expenses. Maybe everyone flies commercial. It's possible family members are hired purely on the basis of merit and are paid like anyone else would be from the outside.

But probably not.

That's why audited financials are the issue. That's why you can't blame the players for asking:

If "operating expenses" are the problem, why don't we take a look at Spaulding's plane first?

E-mail Felger HERE and read the mailbag on Thursdays. Listen to Felger on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 the Sports Hub.