The Current NFL Labor Dispute – Hopefully Looking for a Win-Win Solution

“Nothing like a labor statement to start a season.”
Al Michaels, NBC Sports, Opening Game, September 9, 2010


This morning in Dallas, many of us are wishing the labor dispute in the NFL would shift from the players to the coaches.  We would be quite happy if the Cowboys coaching staff went on strike, to then be replaced by some people with more sense, and then let our team get back to playing like a Cowboys team that looks disciplined and smart.  We can dream, can’t we?

But, back to the real world of labor disputes — apparently we are in for a potential tough one in the NFL.  Last Thursday night, when the Saints and Vikings began their game with an act of union solidarity (each player from both teams stepped onto the field, each lifting the index finger as “one,” demonstrating that the players are “one” in this matter), I decided I needed to figure out what the issues are all about.  So, after a search, I found this lengthy treatment: Fans’ guide to NFL labor battle by Michael Silver.  It is a long article, in a Q & A format.  Well-written, it definitely helped me understand the terrain of the dispute.

Here’s the last paragraph of the article:

How do we solve this mess?
We’re glad you asked (and glad you’re still with us after all these questions). As with most labor disputes, this is a gap that can be bridged through creativity and compromise – and, ultimately, it will come down to money and perception. The first thing that has to happen for a deal to be forged is that each side has to move past the rancorous rhetoric and intense emotion that is likely to worsen over the coming months. Certainly, this is a volatile issue that involves principle and impacts the careers and lives of numerous individuals and their families – but in the end it’s a business dispute between two entities that have it pretty good in a strained economy. If the owners and players test fan loyalties by robbing them of an entire season – or, in a worst-case scenario, dragging the dispute past the fall of 2012 – both could end up as losers. Conversely, there is a way to resolve their differences in a win-win scenario that involves growing the pie, rewarding the owners for their investment risks and keeping total player revenues relatively stable. By adding two regular season games and establishing a rookie pool, a new CBA can theoretically create enough additional revenues that owners can get some of what they want (more money credited off the top) and veterans won’t have to take less. For this to happen, the NFLPA needs to abandon its focus on its percentage of revenues – a holdover from the Upshaw regime – and focus on total dollars. Owners, meanwhile, have to get past the perception that they were duped into taking a poor deal in 2006 and try to leverage a deal with the union that seems more like a partnership than a vengeful comeuppance. All of this can be accomplished by rational, well-meaning negotiators who have pro football’s – and its adoring public’s – best interests at heart. “People on both sides have to study the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” says one league source. “Ultimately, in order to settle this standoff, everybody has to feel that they’ve won, or at least saved face, and that they were part of the process.” Until then, players, owners and those of us who love football will be experiencing labor pains on an uncomfortably frequent basis.

This thought, from the end of the article, was the especially good one: “People on both sides have to study the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” says one league source. “Ultimately, in order to settle this standoff, everybody has to feel that they’ve won, or at least saved face, and that they were part of the process.” It is a classic statement in defense of the “win-win” approach.  (championed by Covey as one of the seven habits of highly effective people).

I don’t know enough about this dispute, even after reading this and other articles, to fully grasp the issues with proper depth.  I do know this:  there is a long history of labor disputes, and there is a fairly long history of workers not being cared for by owners in many arenas.  As I wrote in a post on Labor Dayhave unions at times overreached?  Yes, of course.  When one asks that question, do you think it would be ok to also ask:  have companies ever failed to adequately treat their workers with justice and dignity?  Also, a yes…

And I know that unions do not always do all that they could and should.  For example, consider this criticism of Gene Upshaw, the now deceased leader of the NFL Players Association: In Upshaw’s later years as union head, according to his obituary in The New York Times, he “came under withering criticism from a vocal band of retired players who believed he had not done enough to protect their interests, particularly those of players with health problems.”

But, if there are failures on both sides of the equation, there is also this:  a “win-win” solution is what all should seek, at all times.  It is the right, the human, the humane thing to do in any and every such dispute.


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