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FAY VINCENT: The NFL Mess Presents a Rare Opportunity

Editor's note: On Friday evening, April 29, after this opinion piece had been published a federal appeals court restored the NFL lockout, granting league's request to temporarily block the earlier ruling referred to in this piece.

In the forties my father was an on field official in the National Football League, and he had great respect for that league and the then Commissioner Bert Bell. I have long shared that high regard for the NFL and the prominence of its position in our sports mad culture. 

But this week was a bad week for that august and proud organization as such problems as labor strife, a confusing court decision and grim predictions from the present commissioner cloud the future. Millions of fans have to worry the coming season is threatened. Yet, in my opinion, there is in the midst of all the tumult and the shouting also opportunity.

What happened this week is the following: The labor war between the owners and players reached a deadlock and like most difficult problems in our society ended up before a federal court after the players disbanded their union and then asked the court to rule that the owners were in violation of the anti-trust laws when they acted in concert to "lock out" the players. This is a game of high stakes gotch-ya. 

The owners saw the players' action as a legal and tactical ploy and argued to the court the players were only terminating their union to put the owners in an impossible legal position because if there is no union then the shield the collective bargaining system provides against anti-trust claims has been removed. Thus the owners cannot act in concert to lock out the players because such joint action is illegal. Not surprisingly, the court accepted the players' claim they were sincere in terminating their union and the judge enjoined the collective lock out as a violation of the anti trust-laws. On to the court of appeals. Are you with me so far, class?

This reminds me of the fiasco several years ago in major league baseball when the head of the umpires union had his umpires resign en masse as a negotiating strategy. Calling his bluff, the baseball leadership accepted those resignations with the result some umpires became unintentional victims of a failed strategy. 

One wonders, in this current NFL case how the union leadership can now change its mind and tell the court they really made a mistake and now want to reinstate the union. I can imagine how the court might react to having been so badly manipulated. And if the players stand on their decision to disband, how does the NFL extricate itself and regain some sensible structure absent collective bargaining? With the union gone, how do discussions even take place?

On top of all this chaos, the NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell wrote an astonishing op-ed essay in which he explained how badly hurt the NFL will be if there is no union and no collective bargaining system. 

For years owners in sports have seen players unions as evil forces that have arrogated too much power and now control the major sports. For that reason alone it is stunning to read a commissioner making a powerful argument celebrating the benefits of unionization and arguing how important it is to preserve the union structure. 

Without the union structure, Goodell pointed out, there can be no draft, no agreed upon salary cap and no free agency. Also gone will be agreed upon benefits and anti-drug programs and minimum payroll standards so some teams might have enormous payrolls and others much lesser ones. 

Baseball, of course, has managed well without such payroll controls. The obvious intent of the Goodell essay was to put pressure on the players to abandon their efforts to eliminate the collective bargaining system the Commissioner says is working so well. He wants to return to the status quo ante. 

No clear word on what the players want or will do now. One has the sense another court win like the last one will seal their doom. Oh, and who pays the union leaders if there is no union and no dues?

The Commissioner is correct to a point. The present system has worked but the recurring problem with the collective bargaining system is it involves economic warfare when the basic agreements expire as they do every five years or so. 

In my view, this mess in the NFL is an opportunity for the owners and players to come together--I am dreaming here--to reset their entire relationship. 

If there is no union because the players mean to stand by their decision to disband it, then there has to be a new "partnership" created and the only question is what will it look like. I envision a new true partnership in which the owners give the players some ownership rights and benefits in exchange for agreeing to salary caps and minimums and other structural arrangements. 

There is every reason to believe the major sports will at some point realize they have to begin to share ownership with players. Only then -- when both sides have truly common interests -- will there be labor peace. 

Only then, will the major sports come into the modern business world where strikes have become largely a thing of the past. 

If there are anti-trust exemptions needed on a one-time basis to get some new structure off the ground, Congress is available especially to help get such a wildly popular game back in place. 

Of course, I am dreaming when I imagine the cooperation such a brave new world will demand, and I know the complexities of making such enormous changes in a giant industry. 

I am not sure there is any alternative now. Unless the union reverses field and says it was not serious about disbanding, there is no easy way out. 

If the court decision stands and the union is gone, some radical changes have to be made. And if Commissioner Goodell is correct, as he clearly appears to be, the current mess cries out for breakthrough thinking and the kind of dynamic leadership that will save the NFL from the kind of disaster the Commissioner foresees. 

Only one thing is clear to me-- I would not like to be the union leader who has to tell the judge they were only kidding and now want to resume collective bargaining.

Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries and from 1989-92 served as the Commissioner of Baseball.

Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries. He served as the Commissioner of Baseball from 1989-92.