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NFL's millionaires vs. billionaires: Why care?

A union fight between NFL players and owners is a far cry from one between teachers and legislators, but many of the issues are quite similar.
Image: NFL Lockout
A locked ticket gate at New Meadowlands Stadium, home of the New York Jets and New York Giants. You don’t often see lockouts, but in this case it’s relatively low-risk for the NFL owners since this is the off season.Mario Tama / Getty Images North America

In Wisconsin’s state capital, the union conflict is between teachers and legislators. In Detroit, it’s between auto executives and manufacturing workers.

And in the nation’s capital, a fierce and long-simmering labor fight is raging between a very different group: some of the country’s best athletes and some of its wealthiest business executives.

The circumstances may be different, but the issues pro athletes face when negotiating with their owners are surprisingly similar to those of longshoremen, or iron workers, or bus drivers: Sal aries, employee work hours and benefits.

A collective bargaining agreement between the National Football League and the NFL Players Association will expire Friday. The deadline was extended after intense bargaining sessions failed to bring the two sides close enough together to make a deal.

The on key issues that Americans may not see a pro football season next fall.

For Americans more accustomed to the recent and public union fights involving middle-class workers, the idea of such a conflict arising among millionaire athletes may seem unusual — and it is.

“Unions representing professional athletes in the United States represent the highest paid unionized workers in the world,” said Gary Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law. “‘We’re not talking about $30 an hour. We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars. We’re talking about people whose perspective is not the same as blue-collar workers.”

These high-paid athletes may not have the blue-collar perspective, but they still have a need for collective bargaining.

“All unions basically have the same objectives and perform many of the same functions,” said James Gross, a professor in Cornell University’s department of labor relations, law and history.

It’s just that instead of arguing about whether raises should keep up with inflation, the NFL owners and players are discussing how lavish rookie salaries should be and whether team owners deserve an additional $1 billion each year to cover costs such as stadium construction. That's out of a $9 billion pie.

Instead of hashing out the details of lunch breaks and work weeks, there’s the question of whether players should play 18 regular-season games instead of 16.

To a regular worker, it may seem like a great luxury to have those problems. But experts say these negotiations could have a serious impact the long-term wealth, and health, of football players.

“They do make a lot of money, (but) they still need an organization for one, protection, and two, participation,” Gross said. “Everybody needs that.”

For example, being asked to play an extra two regular-season games, in exchange for eliminating two preseason games, in which many star players see little action, could increase the players’ chances of workplace injury and decrease their already extremely short careers.

Some also argue that extending the season amounts to asking workers to do more for the same pay. That’s something many workers can relate to these days.

“It’s almost like getting overtime without paying overtime,” said Michael LeRoy, a labor law professor at the University of Illinois.

The stakes of these negotiations are high because many pro football players will only play for a few seasons. According to the NFLPA, the average length of an NFL career is about 3 1/2 years. That means that missing one season because of labor strife could mean losing a huge chunk of their potential pro career earnings.

“Members of sports unions have very short careers, whereas (more traditional) union members have a lifetime career, and that changes the way they look at collective bargaining,” Roberts said.

As the two sides jockey for advantage, the tactics both sides are employing are also a far cry from the burn barrels, hand-made signs and budgetary doomsday warnings that are more typical of labor-vs.-employer fights.

NFL owners may lock the players out if they won’t agree to the league's terms. In more typical labor negotiations, it’s the unions that threaten to shut down the business with a strike.

You don’t often see lockouts, but LeRoy said in this case it’s relatively low-risk for the NFL owners since this is the offseason.

“Their TV contracts are in place (and) there’s not lost revenue from ticketholders, so they have maximum bargaining power,” LeRoy said.

Meanwhile, the players have essentially threatened to get rid of the union in order to prevent a lockout.

That complicated maneuver, called decertification, is a bargaining chip for players because it could potentially open the owners up to lengthy antitrust battles. That’s because of how the individual NFL teams work together to negotiate for players.

“(Decertification) is virtually unprecedented in all other labor contracts,” LeRoy said. In fact, he noted, when you do see decertification come up, it is usually the employer that is trying to get rid of the union. In 1987, the NFLPA deployed this unorthodox strategy, which ultimately benefited the players.

Another big difference between this and more typical labor fights is whether they will get the same level of public support — especially if Americans start to worry they won’t get to watch pro football next fall.

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that the majority of Americans think it’s unacceptable for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to strip unionized state workers of collective bargaining agreements. That’s at the heart of the union fight raging in the state.

“It’s harder for the public to relate to multimillion-dollar athletes who are all about the bling and are in the news weekly with their misadventures about spending and sort of an undisciplined lifestyle,” LeRoy said. “Who does the public support? It’s more likely to support a teacher who’s lost their collective bargaining.”

Earlier this week, President Obama signaled that he won't likely be among those who has much sympathy for either side. Speaking at a press conference, he told reporters he had bigger problems to worry about and that the two sides should be able to work it out.

"You've got owners, most of whom are worth close to a billion dollars. You've got players who are making millions of dollars," Obama said at a press conference with the visiting Mexican President Felipe Calderon, according to Reuters.

"My working assumption, at a time when people are having to cut back, compromise and worry about making the mortgage and paying for their kids' college educations, is that the two parties should be able to work it out without the president of the United States intervening," Obama said, according to the Reuters report.