NFL Lockout: Who Is Winning The PR War?

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 11: NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith addresses reporters after the league and the NFL Players Association failed to reach an agreement in labor talks at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building March 11, 2011 in Washington, DC. The NFLPA has filed for decertification and will no longer be the exclusive collective bargaining representative for the players. Players will now be able to file antitrust lawsuits against the NFL. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images)

Now, you might be asking yourself, why is a college site focusing on the problems of a professional league?  Certainly, this is not CGB's main mission, but I think this situation is still relevant to Cal fans.  Former Bears and current NFL superstars, such as DeSean Jackson and Aaron Rodgers might lose out on opportunities to play.  Current Bears, such as Cameron Jordan, Mike Mohamed, and Shane Vereen, might find their professional career stopped before it even started.  So, the impending lockout definitely is relevant to the Golden Bear fans who frequent this site, even if they don't have any particular NFL feelings.  

I wanted to focus on the PR war.  This is an incredibly complicated matter.  Ask 10 different people what the labor issues are and you'll get 10 different answers with 10 different biases.  I'll put my bias right out and note that I am, in general, in favor of the union/labor here.  The problems here are essentially that the NFL does not like the deal with the Union they entered into in 2006.  They are trying to get out of it, because they want more money.  So, they go to the players to ask for the players to give up money, claiming that the NFL teams are hurting financially.  The NFL Players Association (union) says prove it, show us the financial statements.  The NFL says "Hell To Da Naw!"  Since the teams refuse to prove that they are hurting, it leads me to believe that they are not negotiating in good faith.  Thus, I side with the NFLPA.  

However, that is just me.  And I am not necessarily here today to talk about who is right and who is wrong.  I want to talk more about who will be perceived to be right and who will be perceived to be wrong.  This situation is somewhat similar to the Tree-Sitter lawsuit, insomuch as the PR war was so ridiculously divorced from the legal proceedings.  Right and wrong there legally mattered nothing compared to the perception of right and wrong.  So, let's take a closer look at the opening salvos in the PR war.  After the jump, join me as we discuss the competing PR attacks by the NFL and the NFLPA.  

First, let's look at the NFL's initial blast.  When I got home Friday night (the day that the CBA expired and the NFLPA sued the NFL), I had received an email blast from "Roger Goodell."  The NFL has an advantage in that it has emailing lists to blast out messages to its fans.  I predict there are millions and millions of people who they can easily reach.  This is a distinct advantage that the NFLPA does not have.  Here is the letter that I received:

Dear NFL Fan,

When I wrote to you last on behalf of the NFL, we promised you that we would work tirelessly to find a collectively bargained solution to our differences with the players’ union. Subsequent to that letter to you, we agreed that the fastest way to a fair agreement was for everyone to work together through a mediation process. For the last three weeks I have personally attended every session of mediation, which is a process our clubs sincerely believe in.

Unfortunately, I have to tell you that earlier today the players’ union walked away from mediation and collective bargaining and has initiated litigation against the clubs. In an effort to get a fair agreement now, our clubs offered a deal today that, among other things, was designed to have no adverse financial impact on veteran players in the early years, and would have met the players’ financial demands in the latter years of the agreement.

The proposal we made included an offer to narrow the player compensation gap that existed in the negotiations by splitting the difference; guarantee a reallocation of savings from first-round rookies to veterans and retirees without negatively affecting compensation for rounds 2-7;  no compensation reduction for veterans; implement new year-round health and safety rules; retain the current 16-4 season format for at least two years with any subsequent changes subject to the approval of the league and union; and establish a new legacy fund for retired players ($82 million contributed by the owners over the next two years).

It was a deal that offered compromise, and would have ensured the well-being of our players and guaranteed the long-term future for the fans of the great game we all love so much. It was a deal where everyone would prosper.

We remain committed to collective bargaining and the federal mediation process until an agreement is reached, and call on the union to return to negotiations immediately. NFL players, clubs, and fans want an agreement. The only place it can be reached is at the bargaining table.

While we are disappointed with the union’s actions, we remain steadfastly committed to reaching an agreement that serves the best interest of NFL players, clubs and fans, and thank you for your continued support of our league. First and foremost it is your passion for the game that drives us all, and we will not lose sight of this as we continue to work for a deal that works for everyone.

Yours,

Roger Goodell

 

 

As I stated previously, I approached this letter in a very skeptical manner.  There is a lot of bla bla bla, but the first thing I noticed was they tried to paint themselves as the hard working guys while the union walked away.  I was skeptical of this claim and dismissed it immediately.  However, I have been following this case very closely over the last several months and knew that the NFL hasn't been trying that hard.  I knew they had been condescending towards the NFLPA.  I knew they had cancelled negotiation meetings at the last second.  I knew they had just been slapped by the Court for trying to negotiate a lockout fund years ago with TV networks, indicating that they actively wanted a lock out.

Of course, that is me.  Not everybody is as insanely focused on the legal issues in this case.  For the average fan, who is focused on March Madness and hasn't thought of the NFL since the Superbowl, I think this is an extremely appealing statement.  "We worked hard, they walked away."  Very reasonable.  Then, they note that the union initiated a lawsuit.  This is 100% accurate.  Of course, in America people hate litigiousness.  It only adds to the NFL's argument that the NFLPA was not trying to get a deal and wants to sue for more money.  Greed, greed, greed, greed, greed.

 

Then, they go through their last offer.  The one that the NFLPA spurned.  Read through the deal again:

 

 

The proposal we made included an offer to narrow the player compensation gap that existed in the negotiations by splitting the difference; guarantee a reallocation of savings from first-round rookies to veterans and retirees without negatively affecting compensation for rounds 2-7;  no compensation reduction for veterans; implement new year-round health and safety rules; retain the current 16-4 season format for at least two years with any subsequent changes subject to the approval of the league and union; and establish a new legacy fund for retired players ($82 million contributed by the owners over the next two years).

As I read through this, even with my pro-labor stance, I started to feel differently.  This seems so reasonable.  Splitting the difference.  That sounds fair.  Reallocation of savings from rookies to veterans/retirees without affecting rounds 2-7.  That sounds a little confusing, but basically they are going to pay Round 1 superstars less money and give it to the veterans (which was a big issue here).  Ok, hurts those Round 1 superstars, but still it seems fair.  And weren't they getting paid way too much anyway?  

The rest of it seems so nice and reasonable.  No 18 games schedule.  Health and safety rules.  Legacy fund for retired players.  Take this at face value and it is stunning that the NFLPA could reject it.  Or at least that is what one might think reading this letter.  It is a perfect opening salvo for the NFL.  They state they offered an amazing deal and the NFLPA just flat turned it down and went to us big bad lawyers.  Who could like lawyers??  And those who associate with lawyers???  

Now, I never received any similar matching email from the NFLPA.  I don't even know if the NFLPA has a mailing list.  I doubt I am alone in receiving only one side to the story.  I read a lot of stories on various SBN sites and elsewise about the lockout.  I went down to read the comments to see what the average fans were saying.  They were saying things akin to "I used to be for the union, but now with this rejection of a very reasonable offer, I am leaning towards the NFL."  This is all very anecdotal, of course, but it was similar to how I was starting to feel.  Was the NFLPA acting unreasonable?  Why did they reject this on its face reasonable deal?

I had to do some searching, because the answers did not come easily.  The fact that the answers did not come easily indicate the advantage that the NFL has here.  At ProFootballTalk.com, I found a listing of reasons why the NFLPA decided to reject the offer and decertify.  Here you go:

"The NFL demanded a multi-billion dollar giveback and refused to provide any legitimate financial information to justify it.

The NFL’s offer on March 7 to give the NFLPA a single sheet of numbers was NOT financial disclosure. The players’ accountants and bankers advised that the "offered" information was meaningless: only two numbers for each year.

The NFL wanted to turn the clock back on player compensation by four years, moving them back to where they were in 2007.

The NFL offered no proposal at all for long-term share of revenues.

NFL demanded 100% of all revenues which went above unrealistically low projections for the first four years.

The NFL refused to meet the players on significant changes to in-season, off-season or pre-season health and safety rules.

The NFL kept on the table its hypocritical demand for an 18-game season, despite its public claims to be working toward improving the heath and safety of players.

The NFL wanted cutbacks in payer workers’ compensation benefits for injured players.

The NFL sought to limit rookie compensation long after they become veterans — into players’ fourth and fifth years

THE PLAYERS WANT TO KEEP PLAYING

The players offered repeatedly to continue working under the existing CBA, but were rejected by the NFL five times.

Despite publicly admitting no club was losing money, that TV ratings, sponsorship money, etc. were at an all time high, the NFL continued to insist on an 18-percent rollback in the players’ share of revenues and continue to deny the NFLPA’s request for justification."

 

The most important aspect to this situation is, in my view, at the start and end of the list.  The NFL continued to refuse to provide genuine information.  Notice the offer from the NFL.  Nowhere does it state that they will open the books.  Further, at the end it notes that the players are happy to continue working under the current CBA.  The players are being pushed around here by the NFL which refuses to show its work.  The NFL offer might seem reasonable on its face, but it doesn't seem to even include any proposals regarding key aspects important to the NFLPA.  There are some other disagreements on issues, such as whether there is a strong health/safety program.  The language here by both sides is too vague to provide a meaningful analysis regarding whether the proposed health/safety programs are sufficient.

The problem for the NFLPA is that that is secondary.  The NFLPA is focusing on the financial statements.  The NFLPA is focused on the NFL proving that they are really losing money under the current deal.  The average fan isn't going to really focus that much on it.  If the NFLPA makes this about money, it's the old "Millionaires v. Billionaires" battle that hurt the NHL and MLB Players Associations (and will hurt the NBA Union soon enough).  The NFL wins when its like that, because if people don't strongly take the side of the NFLPA, then the NFL wins.  

The NFLPA would be better suited on focusing on the health/safety program.  There has been a lot of news about injuries, concussions, early onset dementia and other health problems associated with playing football.  People are genuinely concerned about the players as human beings.  Us Cal fans just have to go back to the Oregon State 2009 game to remember how sickening it felt to see Jahvid Best laying there lifeless in the endzone.  Americans will cotton to that idea and support the NFLPA if it can focus things on the health/safety aspects.  

 

There is one final aspect to this that should be discussed.  Cal alum and Yahoo! sportswriter Michael Silver wrote another article regarding the lockout.  His work has been exemplary on this matter.  Of course, every writer is going to approach the story with their biases.  I saw Michael Silver enjoying pre-game beers with a few Cal football players and former Cal player and Superbowl champ Scott Fujita before the Cal-Stanford men's basketball game.  Michael Silver is probably going to come from a pro-labor stance.  This is, of course, not inappropriate.  People come to read his work for his expert opinion on this matter, not to be a mere reciter of objective facts.  Let's see what he has to say:

So now it’s a legal matter, and we’ll find out over the coming months whether Smith’s power play was inspired or ill-advised. As the situation plays out, we’ll hear all sorts of charges and accusations about which side made what proposal, which negotiators were sincere and which ones were unreasonable, and who deserves the bulk of the blame. Having communicated with people in each camp on Friday, I’m still totally confused about many elements of the owners’ final offer and why it took so long for it to be presented.

It is a very good article and it was difficult for me to find a key excerpt that really gave an overall perspective.  I think that that paragraph is key here, especially the bolded area.  If you read the article, it basically illustrates a NFL that shows no urgency in resolving the matter.  It illustrates a NFL that blows off the NFLPA repeatedly and then at the last minute drops this on its face reasonable offer that might not be as reasonable if you dig deeper.  The fact that the NFL hadn't really been close to its final offer and then just made a massive jump at the last second can be interpreted two ways:

1.  The NFL was genuinely desperate to make a deal and really meant its offer.

2.  The NFL wanted to have a strong PR hand and so it made an offer it knew that the NFLPA would never accept at the last second.  

I lean towards the second aspect here.  I think that the offer delineated by Roger Goodell's letter was not a genuine offer, but instead a tactic.  I think it is going to work.  I think the NFL's institutional advantages and ability to make fans tune out to the NFLPA's arguments will be strong.  Now, the Brady et al lawsuit still could be disastrous for the NFL.  But the NFL is hoping that the public will put pressure on the NFLPA to "stop the madness" and put the NFLPA in a weakened negotiation position.  The NFL will seem like the reasonable actor, while the NFLPA pounds its chest about items that the average fan is not that interested in.  

There is a lot more legalese to discuss here, but that is for an other time.  I ask you, dear reader, what are your thoughts on the PR war? 

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