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The Superbowl Is Over, But the Biggest Fight in Football Is About to Kick off

This time it’s not Packers v. Steelers. It’s Workers v. Bosses.

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In 1987 the players again tried to allow individual players to enter a true marketplace for their talents. When no progress was made in the negotiations after two weeks of regular season play, the players voted to strike. The league responded by canceling games and hiring replacement players. The strike was broken. The union voted to return to work.

The day the strike ended, the players once again turned to the courts. The NFLPA filed an antitrust suit in Federal Court. The Court of Appeals ultimately rejected that suit. The Supreme Court has held that even in the absence of current collective bargaining agreement, as long as a bargaining relationship still exist the antitrust immunity holds. The Chief Judge dissented, noting, “this court’s unprecedented decision leads to the ineluctable result of union decertification in order to invoke rights to which players are clearly entitled under the antitrust laws.”

As Gabriel Feldman, law professor at the Tulane Sports Law program explains, “Essentially, players are required to choose labor law (and collective bargaining) or antitrust law (and individual bargaining and litigation). If the players choose labor law, an antitrust shield is raised that prevents them from attacking NFL rules under the antitrust laws. To lower the shield and choose antitrust law, the players must end the collective bargaining relationship.”

In December 1989, the players voted to end the NFLPA’s status as the players’ collective bargaining agent. The NFLPA then re-formed as a voluntary professional association.

Since the NFLPA no longer represented the players in collective bargaining, individual union members were able to bring an antitrust action against the NFL challenging its free agency rules as an unlawful restraint of trade. A group of players, led by New York Jets running back Freeman McNeil filed suit challenging the restrictions on free agency. An all-woman jury heard the case in 1992. Pat Bowlen, owner of the Denver Broncos told the Rocky Mountain News that he didn’t want “eight women who are basically domestic housewives to decide the future of the National football League.”

In 1992, the jury ruled in the players’ favor.

That verdict and the threat of a class action filed by Reggie White, and then with the Philadelphia Eagles on behalf of all NFL players brought the parties back to the negotiating table. The NFL finally agreed on a formula that permitted free agency. In return, the owners demanded and received a salary cap, albeit one tied to a formula based on players' share of total league revenues.

Once the agreement was approved the NFLPA reconstituted itself as a labor union and entered into a new collective bargaining agreement with the league. Players win unrestricted free agency for first time and are guaranteed a higher percentage of major league revenues in exchange for giving the owners a salary cap on payrolls.

The NFLPA and the league have extended their 1993 agreement five times, most recently in March 2006 when it was extended through the 2011 season after the NFL owners voted 30-2 to accept the NFLPA's final proposal.

In 2010 the NFL exercised its option to terminate that contract, effective March 3, 2011. If a new agreement is not reached by then, the team owners threaten to close down the league.

Millionaires vs. Billionaires?

Currently the revenues are split about 50-50 between players and owners. (The net revenues, after the owners subtract some of their expense from the total, an amount worth more than $1 billion in 2010, are split 57-43, which is the percentage you often read in the media.) The owners want the players to give back about $1 billion that is coming to them under the 2008 contract.

 
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