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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.

Dear Football Fan:

The Superbowl is over. But the real combat is just beginning. This time it’s not Packers v. Steelers. It’s Workers v. Bosses. And for thousands of workers and millions of fans, this is the game that counts.

In the game of football, the rules favor neither side. Each team has the same number of players and similar resources. In the business of football, however, the rules overwhelmingly favor one side. And the resources each side commands are vastly unequal.

Consider the different access to the media each side has. The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) submitted a 60-second ad for broadcast during the College All Star game, played the day before the Superbowl.

The NFLPA was a title sponsor of the All Star game. As part of its sponsorship agreement it received two minutes of network air time. The ad itself was anything but inflammatory. It showed a dark stadium, empty locker rooms, locked gates and dozens of individual fans and players repeating the refrain, “Let them play.”

None of this mattered. The College Sports Network, owned by CBS, refused to broadcast the spot. Executives at CBS said it “crossed the line of fairness.” They insisted they “didn’t want to get involved” in the labor negotiations.

But of course, CBS is very much involved in the labor negotiations--on the wide of the owners. CBS shells out $620 million to the NFL for the rights to broadcast its games and to access other NFL content. The NFL also receives $1.1 billion from ESPN, $720 million from Fox and $600 million from NBC.

Last year CBS and the other broadcasters signed a contract with the team owners designed to give them enormous leverage in their negotiations with the players. In return for the NFL receiving less money initially, the broadcasters agreed to pay it $4 billion even if the season is not played.

Adding insult to injury, on Superbowl day, during the pregame show Fox News ran a segment on the labor dispute but talked only to one side. Chris Wallace interviewed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who represents the owners. He did not interview DeMaurice Smith, who represents the players.

A Brief History of Players v. Management

The battle between labor and management is always uneven. Up until the 1930s management didn’t even have to negotiate with its workers. Owners could fire workers who tried to organize. Often the courts declared unions illegal. In the 1930s workers finally gained the legal right to form unions. Owners were required to bargain “in good faith.” The owners rarely followed the rules.

For NFL players, every yard gained from management has been hard fought and hard earned. NFL players began to organize in 1956. Players on the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns formed an association and made minimal demands on their team owners: a minimum wage, per diem pay to cover expenses and, believe it or not, uniforms and equipment paid for by the teams!

The owners never met with the players and refused to respond to any of their proposals.

The players, as would be the case for the next 40 years, turned to the courts for help. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NFL did not enjoy the same antitrust immunity that Major League Baseball did. The result was that many NFL rules that limited player mobility and negotiating power could be viewed as illegal restraints of trade. Rather than face that prospect through another lawsuit, the owners granted many of the players' demands, including setting up a minimal pension plan. But the owners refused to enter into a collective bargaining agreement with the association.

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