Take It From Marvin Miller: NFL Owners, Players in Trouble
You've had the Evil Owners in baseball.
They spent decades using their version of legalized slavery called the reserve clause. They were so ruthless that they refused to make ticket adjustments the season after the Great Depression. They took forever to integrate the game. They triggered the Mother of All Strikes that obliterated the 1994 season along with the World Series.
Well, forget all of that.
These NFL owners are more insufferable, and so are these NFL players for allowing their bosses to sit on the verge of stiff-arming professional football fans with the threat of a lockout.
"If the (NFL players') union doesn't react better, it's going to unfold with the owners getting bolder and bolder," said Marvin Miller, 93, who knows what he's talking about. "The owners already are saying and doing what they want, and nobody is calling them to task. They are making these stupid demands. And I say 'stupid,' because even if they think they can get away with all of this, the risks that they're running of disrupting a very financially successful industry is crazy."
Miller was the legendary head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, which has been the model for labor unions everywhere since his leadership from 1966-82.
To paraphrase Miller: When it comes to greed, neither baseball owners at their worst nor any other entity since the beginning of earth topped these current NFL owners. Despite operating one of the most profitable businesses ever at $9 billion in revenue per year, NFL owners are within weeks of staging a lockout of the players.
You know, because NFL owners want more money.
Miller chuckled over the phone from his home in Manhattan, paused and then chuckled some more.
"Oh, listen. These (NFL) guys are way past the greed of the baseball owners. Way past," Miller said, chuckling again. "You've got to give credit where credit is due. I think baseball owners took some crazy positions, but nothing to this extreme.
"Greed? (NFL owners) reek of it. I mean, really. It's amazing. There's such a difference between an industry that is struggling to stay alive and needs concessions of some kind and a football industry which is the exact reverse of that. It needs nothing, but they're willing to risk it all.
"I call that, not just crass and not just greedy.
"I call that stupid."
For one, no professional sports league has ever been more popular or profitable. After setting a slew of television records during the regular season, the NFL saw this year's Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers become the most-watched television show in history. Plus, regardless of a lockout, the NFL is slated to receive $4 billion this season from its various television contracts.
Not only that, NFL owners make a ton from NFL properties. Then you have their revenue from the explosion of luxury boxes inside new stadiums throughout the league. You also have their shakedown of your average fan attending games. That's because folks have to decide these days between the combination of purchasing a ticket, paying for parking and buying refreshments or taking care of the mortgage.
Still, NFL owners shrug over the following: According to USA Today, an economist associated with the NFL Players Association estimates that a year-long lockout would cost each of the league's 32 cities about 3,000 jobs and $160 million.
These NFL owners shrug, because they say they don't believe those figures, or maybe they just don't care.
Instead, they care are about two things, and neither is good.
They want the players to agree to increase the regular season from 16 to 18 games. And, in addition to the $1 billion that they already get up front each year from total revenue as so-called "cost credits," they want to pocket another $1 billion.
"Essentially, the owners are telling the players that 'We want you to give up even more money than you already are giving up, and in return, we'll work you two extra games,' " Miller said, chuckling more. "It's just absurd, and nobody seems to be as astounded about all of this as I am. Certainly the media isn't, and I'm sure fans who don't know much about labor negotiations aren't putting this together.
"But on the one side, you have the football owners who are by far the wealthiest of all the professional team sports owners in terms of the revenue they clear every year. On the player side, they are the lowest paid of any professional team sport.
"They have the lowest pensions. They have the shortest careers of any of the team sports. They have the worst disability and injury rates. It's so one-sided. There ought to be fans and the media climbing all over the owners. You never saw such a setup."
In addition to the blinders on reporters, Miller blames NFL players for serving as willing punching bags. He said they ruined their economic potential by agreeing to a salary cap in the early 1990s. He said it was partly because NFL players never had a real union when compared to that of baseball players whose union either has whipped baseball owners or drawn even during labor battles over the past 40 years.
Mostly, Miller said NFL owners have prospered with the leadership of the NFL players "in their pockets" for years.
There was the late Gene Upshaw, for instance, who was famously chummy with former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Among other horrors, at least according to Miller, it was a relationship that led to this current collective bargaining agreement that allowed the owners to exercise an early opt-out clause -- which they did -- in 2008.
"Look, Gene Upshaw was a friend of mine, but he was no labor leader, and he wasn't going to be one if he lived to be 3,000," Miller said. "He just wasn't. Unfortunately, the players have done this time and again. They have looked for leadership among ex-players like Upshaw and never into the regular trade-union movement.
"It's as if they were back in the dark ages. If you're going to build a legitimate union, get people who are experienced at doing it."
Upshaw's successor is DeMaurice Smith, 47, a former prosecutor and trial lawyer in Washington D.C. To Smith's credit, he huddled with Miller in New York two years ago after he took over the NFLPA.
Said Miller, "I think he's a bright man. I think his instincts are in the right place. The question is, A, does he have sufficient know-how to deal with this, and, B, does he know how to build the support and the solidarity of the membership, which is the ultimate weapon he's got?"
The early indications aren't encouraging.
Just last month, New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie directed a profanity-based tirade at everybody involved with the labor talks, including his own union leadership. In contrast, before, during and after baseball's 1994 strike, you had future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine with his unyielding words and stoic face representing the thoughts of his peers.
The public didn't like it, but the baseball owners and players earned each other's respect after that strike. In fact, it set the foundation for labor peace in baseball that shows no sign of wavering soon.
So what will happen with this NFL situation?
"Well, if the owners are foolish enough to give up billions of dollars, this could last a while," Miller said. "The damage that it could cost their whole industry, I don't think it's worth it. They never know when they will go too far and create solidarity among the players all by themselves."
Miller laughed, because he knows that won't happen.
Here's my prediction: There will be an NFL lockout. The players will buckle, and courtesy of Miller's shadow, baseball will continue to have the union in pro sports with the most guts.