The NFL owners thought it was a p.r. ploy. “Open your books,” the union cried, wanting justification for the owners’ insistence that their players, despite the robust health of pro football, take a $1 billion cut in pay. The union’s demand seemed reasonable enough. Before we agree to lowering our compensation, in a game where careers average about three years and contracts are not guaranteed, we’d like to see how much money our employers are actually bleeding.
But the NFL insisted on keeping the financial picture murky. We’ll give you the revenue data and some of our costs, the owners said, but we won’t divulge any more information than the collective-bargaining agreement requires. What the NFL didn’t realized, however, is that in today’s world, transparency counts — regardless of whether the law requires it. Don’t forget that, over the past decade, institutions like Enron, the investment banks that employed derivatives traders and the subprime-mortgage houses have all wracked the American economy because they shunned transparency. We’re all skeptical, for good reason. By refusing to bare all, you must be hiding something. That’s our world in 2011.
So on March 11, the NFL Players’ Association chose to dissolve itself, in part because it never received the financial information it requested. Thus, individual players like Tom Brady are filing antitrust suits against the NFL in order to prevent it from locking out the players, bringing America’s most popular sport to a standstill. The union is doing fans no favors — lawsuits drag. The longer the legal wrangling, the more uncertain the NFL’s future.
Still, the owners’ refusal to share financial information with the union is maddening. After all, the players aren’t asking for extra cash; they’re asking for data. What’s wrong with data? And let’s examine the NFL’s position that the players are just seeking public sympathy by asking for transparency.
First, if the owners show the players the books and the players still gripe, wouldn’t public opinion turn toward the owners? Second, if the owners show the players full, audited financial statements and the numbers reveal that profits are down or that some teams are losing money, wouldn’t that help the owners’ leverage in seeking compensation rollbacks? Conversely, if the owners show the players the books and the players see that profits aren’t as bad as the NFL says … well, that’s why everyone assumes it’s hiding the numbers in the first place. It would simply be confirming the public consensus. At this point, the owners can’t lose by doing the right thing and being 100% transparent. Just be honest for crying out loud.
When you ask NFL owners and officials about their secrecy, the response is lame. “I don’t want someone telling us we’re not spending enough on a marketing guy, or this or that,” says New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, when asked why the owners won’t open the books. That’s assuring for fans, Robert. You’re really going to put the sport at risk because you don’t want some union bean counter nitpicking about your expenses? Baloney. Let the guy nitpick. What difference does it make? If anything, the players will look bad if they try to take money from organizational grunts who earn five figures in order to further enrich their multimillion-dollar bank accounts.
A few days before the Super Bowl, in Dallas, I asked Bob Batterman, an NFL lawyer who is immensely unpopular in union circles, why the league doesn’t share more information with the players. “Because that has never solved a labor dispute,” he said. “Ever. Ever. Ever.” But why couldn’t it now? “All it does is up the rhetoric,” Batterman said. “Did you see what happened when the NBA showed [NBA Players’ Association lawyer] Billy Hunter the books?” But that’s a different league, I countered. Sure, Hunter may have said that the NBA’s losses were overstated. But that union-negotiation ploy didn’t irreparably harm the chances for NBA labor peace. No harm, no foul.
Collective bargaining is all about posturing. And until the NFL players start missing out on bonus checks in April, they have a ton of incentive to take a hard stance. In a few weeks, the players may capitulate. But right now, they have every reason to stay strong, as the owners seem like the weak, petty party.