Scott Michaux

Sports columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. | ScottMichaux.com

Owners created labor mess, now they need to clean it up

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The NFL Draft went on as scheduled Thursday night, just three days after commissioner Roger Goodell predicted gloom and doom for America's most popular sports league.



Goodell depicted a grave new world for the NFL in an op-ed piece he drafted in the Wall Street Journal on Monday. He should know, since he conspired with the league's owners to throw the first shovel of dirt on their golden coffins.

In spite of Goodell's best efforts to paint the players as the villains in this labor dispute, make no mistake that it is Goodell and the owners who are 100 percent at fault for whatever happens to the 2011 NFL season and beyond. They are the ones not satisfied with outrageous success. They are the ones who forced this unnecessary standoff that Goodell believes could "significantly alter professional football as we know it."

They need to be the one's that back down for the good of the game.

This folly was brought on by old-school corporate thinking. For some reason, the American public has always been quick to side with the owners in these labor battles.

Back in 1987, we were all willing to accept televised games played with "scab" players earning $1,000 a week as if they were the real deal. That public willingness to embrace an inferior product forced the players to cave and the strike to end pretty much on the owners' terms.

Almost a quarter century of labor peace later, the NFL has seriously underestimated its position of strength in this new battle it created. We've got plenty of other sports options, including college football, that is vastly more popular as a whole than it was in 1987. We want to see stars, not scabs.

This "work stoppage" as Goodell euphemistically called it (probably because the more accurate term "lockout" sounded a little too sinister for his one-sided purposes) was entirely brought on by the greed of the league and the owners unsatisfied with the $9 billion a year cash cow they already had.

It's hard to fathom why the owners opted to blow up the best collective bargaining landscape they could possibly have hoped for. Football players -- who are closer to career extinction on every single snap -- don't have the kind of guaranteed contracts that pro baseball and basketball players enjoy. Still, the owners wanted a bigger piece of the pie, even though they are not the ones starring in the show by putting their bodies at extreme risk.

The owners cried poor, as if being the most successful sports league with annually improving TV ratings and popularity wasn't enough. They even trotted out the growing cost of modern facilities, which we all know are largely paid for by the same public that tends to tolerate their greedy aspirations.

Simplifying this whole thing as a rich vs. richer confrontation is absurd. Many NFL players are handsomely compensated for their efforts -- as well they should be since they are the ones doing all the work. Many other NFL players aren't compensated nearly enough for the sacrifices they make to long life and healthy limbs.

The players -- mostly satisfied with the status quo of collective bargaining agreements that have allowed the league and its players to flourish -- didn't want to give up a chunk of their well-deserved earnings. And they especially didn't want to be coerced into another greed-grabbing expansion of the regular season to 18 games. That ownership demand was a deal-breaker that would further enhance the players' risk and reduce their already paltry average career expectancy of four seasons.

So the owners instigated their lockout, forcing the NFL Players Association to dissolve the union and prompt a class-action anti-trust lawsuit. Of course, the owners lost in court and a judge forced an end to the illegal lockout.

That's when Goodell showed his faithful allegiance to his owners and resorted to the kind of scare campaign that has become all too common when those in power feel threatened. They try to pass that threat onto the rest of us by offering utterly absurd doomsday scenarios.

In his Wall Street Journal rant, Goodell painted a bleak future of rich franchises dominating the NFL landscape by hoarding all of the best independent contractors in an unregulated market. He criticized the judge who ruled in favor of the players for "blessing this negotiating tactic" that "may endanger one of the most popular and successful sports leagues in history." (He declined to mention that it was he and the owners who started this whole thing.)

It was a grim fairy tale, with no draft, no salary cap, no minimum contracts, no rules and no limits on free agency.

"Do the players and their lawyers have so little regard for the fans that they think this really serves their interests?" Goodell wrote.

Nice try, Mr. Pot but the Kettle fans aren't buying it. Goodell and the owners should be very afraid of all these things because they are the ones who pushed this labor dispute to the brink of melting down everything that made the NFL so successful in the first place.

It's funny how they suddenly love the old collective bargaining agreement that made them all raging successes -- the one the players are more than willing to go back to with reasonable negotiations.

If the players really wanted a new unlimited free-agent world, they wouldn't be letting this NFL Draft go on.

There's only one way out of this mess, and this time it's the owners who need to cave. If they don't, Goodell's legacy will be presiding over the worst self-inflicted destruction of a sure thing in sports history.

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