Beyond all the self-pity and spin coming from the offices of National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell, here is the naked truth: we face a lockout and the prospect of no pro football in 2011 because the union made a three-word demand that would not have cost the owners a dime—open your books.
DeMaurice Smith and the NFL Players Association wanted access to ten years of financial audits so they could see why the most successful sports league on earth was claiming to be financially embattled. They wanted to know why the owners could feel justified in asking for 18 percent cuts in player compensation. They wanted to know why—despite all we now know about the brutal hazards of the sport—the owners could insist on adding two more regular-season games. But the owners refused to open the books, offering instead, as the NFLPA described it, “a single sheet of paper with two numbers on it.” This single sheet would be available to the union only after being vetted by an independent third party.
It’s unclear why the owners have made a deal-breaking fetish of financial secrecy. We can only assume that the books would not be flattered by the light of day. We don’t know if their private ledgers would provoke the IRS into giving them something less pleasant than a body cavity search. We don’t know if the audits would demonstrate that owners leveraged their franchises and then took a bath in the 2008 economic crash. We don’t know if individual NFL owners—like their Major League Baseball counterparts—lied to local governments so they could get more taxpayer cash for stadiums. Given the financial state of baseball’s New York Mets, whose owners flushed their liquidity by partnering up with Bernie Madoff, we should be forgiven for fearing the worst.
The NFLPA also offered to consider various benefit cuts in return for an ownership stake in the teams. The owners responded as if the players had arrived at negotiations wearing white after Labor Day. NFL outside counsel Bob Batterman reportedly responded, “My clients aren’t interested in being partners with your guys.” It’s this kind of plutocratic contempt that’s poisoned the well.
The Players Association, feeling derided and disrespected, has now decertified the union so it can sue the league and forestall the owners from shutting down the sport. As a certified union, NFLPA is forbidden from suing the league and owners are shielded from labor law violations. But as a decertified trade association, it can bring lawsuits on everything from the lockout to the legality of the NFL draft. Litigation isn’t pretty, but going to the courts means the NFLPA can get an injunction and stop the lockout.
Fans, labor activists and progressives should stand proudly with the players. It’s a lockout, not a strike. The NFLPA has said repeatedly that its members will play under the existing contract until a new agreement is reached.