Now that the NFL has reached agreement with its players and settled the important economic issues that had marked a difficult and contentious few months of labor uncertainty, there will be the usual media efforts to determine which side won. But such debates miss the point and tend to perpetuate the unfortunate myth that there are separate interests at work in these labor battles.
Perhaps some history is relevant.
Before the players in our major sports were organized into the powerful unions now in place, players were forced to sign agreements giving the owners permanent control over the rights of players to change employers. The so-called “reserve clause” in the baseball agreement was challenged by the superb St. Louis Cardinal outfielder Curt Flood, whose lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court -- where he lost. Flood had asked the Court to reverse an ancient and discredited ruling by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to the effect that baseball was not a “business” within the meaning of the Commerce clause of the Constitution and thus was immune to anti-trust claims and court interference. In the Flood case, the Court in effect told Flood to look to Congress to decide the legal status of baseball. Interestingly, Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, a former NFL player who had signed the same form of agreement as Flood, believed Flood deserved no relief from, and should be held to, the agreement he had signed. Sadly, after his total failure in court, Flood remained out of baseball and died shortly thereafter.
But in baseball the union brilliantly achieved legal emancipation for the players through arbitration rulings that ignored the Flood decision and instead construed the players’ agreement in favor of players who were ruled to be free agents. Those rulings had effects in all sports and altered permanently the sports labor market. Players in other sports benefited from the freedom achieved by the baseball players and the sports unions began to assert their power. After years of labor battling sports owners have realized there will never be a return to the days when the players were vulnerable. Today the challenge is for each sport to establish a balanced economic environment in which the sport can continue to take advantage of the enormous growth in the entertainment and especially the television .
There is still the myth that owners and players have fundamentally separate interests. In fact, there is only one business and owners and players have come slowly to realize they have to work together to continue to make the decisions that will lead to the growth of that business. Yes, there are differences in their economic interests, but their business makes them mutually dependent. They are symbiotic. Each lives because the other is present as well. Only as they continue to work together and accept the reality of their situation will we see these sorry spectacles of strikes and lockouts become rarer. There can be no winners in these fights because there can be no losers. If one side loses, both lose. The final deal represents the recognition the business is so enormous any disruption hurts everyone. In the NFL settlement several aspects are notable.
As in any human activity, leadership is vital. The two leaders in the discussions, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the union executive DeMaurice Smith managed their constituencies with skill and admirable restraint. Each made some mistakes. The decision of the union to commit self- immolation was a patently silly legal ploy that had to be reversed once the deal was reached. The owners continuing refusal to open their financial books hurt their case. In the end, though, the final agreement is all that matters to the fans, and it is, after all the fans, that really matter here. For the NFL is the colossus of the sports world solely because of the fans. In the end the NFL owners and their players realized they were approaching the point when the season was at risk and fans would begin to turn against both sides. The essential fact of the entertainment business is that the continued allegiance of the fan-customer is truly golden rule. Once again this deal reminds us the money to pay the owners and all the salaries comes out of the pockets of the fans.
Interestingly, as the NFL and NBA were engaged in open and sharp-edged labor negotiations, the baseball owners have been in negotiations with their players union in almost total silence. After years of fierce fighting baseball seems to have accepted the wisdom of labor peace and it seems unlikely there will be any result other than a new agreement that will not include any major changes in the present economic terms. Only the NBA appears headed for a major disruption.
Someone once wrote that the business of sports is like looking at the sun. One can do it only briefly. Now the business of the NFL will properly disappear to the back pages of the newspapers so that the games can resume their proper place. During these negotiations, all of us who love the NFL took our collective look at the business sun and we now turn gratefully aside. Just that brief look was quite enough.
Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries. He served as the Commissioner of Baseball from 1989-92.