Wednesday, October 27, 2010

NFL Armageddon – the dominos continue to fall towards the inevitable

Try as they may to suggest otherwise, the National Football League and the NFL Players Association seem to moving closer and closer towards a showdown that, unless both sides radically change their thinking process, will result in a devastating work stoppage. The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the owners and their work force ends in March. With no real meaningful talks currently scheduled, to suggest time is running out on the two sides reaching an agreement before the deadline is becoming more and more real.

“Owners are committed to not having any work stoppage,” the Dallas Cowboys owner said in an interview with Bloomberg Television Monday afternoon. Talk along these lines is nothing more than rhetoric; talk for the sake of talk, nothing more than that.

Bears Chairman Michael McCaskey offered his thoughts on the chance of a labor stoppage, more of a reaction to the suggestions made last week by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft that a work stoppage could be averted.

“I believe it's possible to get to an agreement. This enterprise my grandfather helped found and grow over the years has turned out to be the most watched and popular sport in America, and all of us — players, coaches, fans, sponsors, TV networks — get so much out of it and benefit so handsomely from it, and that stands to continue. Surely there is a way to divide the economic pie and decide on work rules in a way that continues the prosperity and appeal of the game.”

When asked if he believed the odds relating to a work stoppage (great choice of words relating to football) McCaskey was honest in his speculation with the Tribune.

“It's hard to assign a probability because the thing is going to go through stages, and the likelihood of something happening or not happening is going to change with each stage. The agreement will not be reached soon. But it is entirely possible to do it, and if both sides will come to the table with a will to continue what has made the NFL so special, we can get an agreement.”

Speaking with Time Magazine, the NFL commissioner, who will play a key role when the two sides decide its time to negotiate and bargain in good faith, offered even more of the same points he’s already made.

“I’ll play any role I can to make sure we reach an agreement so we continue to play football. I’ve said repeatedly, the sooner we do that, the better. There could be revenue loss starting right now. That hurts everyone. We’ll work night and day.”

Why is this important to note? Last week the Wall Street Journal published a report that suggested NFL owners could lose close to $1 billion if an NFL lockout was declared in March but settled in August in time to save the 2011 season. Just the spectre of an NFL lockout has sponsors running away from the NFL or looking for opportunities to send a message to the NFL that the league had better get their act together in terms of reaching a new labor agreement. Goodell has to do much more than he is doing. Roger Goodell has to step up and force the issue with NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, get in a room with Smith and start talking CBA.

One of the issues to move to the forefront in the last week was the NFL health care debate. According to the NFL Players Association and the NFL have exchanged letters on the issue of health insurance coverage of NFL players in the event that the current CBA expires next March 3 without a new agreement.

NFLPA General Counsel Richard Berthelsen inquired as to “whether it is in fact true that the owners intend to cease paying the players’ health insurance premiums if there is no new CBA after March 30, 2011, and if so, whether the owners’ actions in that regard will be a ‘COBRA qualifying event’ which will enable the players to thereafter keep their coverage in place by paying the premiums themselves.”

In response, NFL Senior Vice President of Labor Litigation & Policy Dennis Curran pointed out that it is well known that an employer is not obligated to provide wages or salary, or to pay for continuation of wage-related benefits, for employees during a work stoppage. He noted that employers uniformly refrain from doing so in those circumstances.

Curran also said that for at least a decade it has been well established that participation in a strike or lockout is a COBRA-qualifying event. Under the federal law known as COBRA, affected employees are entitled to continue their employer-provided health insurance coverage but at their own or their union’s expense. For example, during the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, the NHL’s players union secured substitute coverage for its members as its expense.

“Given how well settled these issues are, why has the union elected not to inform its members of their COBRA rights?,” Curran asked. “Through its public rhetoric about this issue, the union has created and exploited concern among its members and their families; it has done so knowing full well that no player or family member need suffer any loss of coverage.”

Curran called on the union “to clarify this issue with the players and correct the misimpression that its public rhetoric has created.”

What exactly is Smith waiting for? The people who hire and pay his salary, current NFL players, will lose their medical coverage on March 3 unless a labor agreement is reached. Its unimaginable given how tough it is to play football that football players would be left without medical benefits on March 3, 2011 – like Goodell, Smith had better realize the clock is ticking and he needs to act now.

The real question – does Smith “get it”. Smith spoke with The St. Paul Pioneer Press offering a variety of opinions on the implications of an NFL lockout.

“With all due respect, hits over this weekend have gotten more press coverage than the fact that 5,000 to 6,000 family members in the NFL stand to lose their health care in March,” Smith said. “We’ve got several kids on kidney dialysis. We’ve got at least one who’s in need of a heart transplant.

“While I would love to live in the world where I just react to something that happens on Sunday, I’ve got 1,900 players and another 5,000 family members with more at stake.”

NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello (always an open and honest source of information) suggested the medical care issue is one reason why the two sides had better get back to the bargaining table soon.

“This is yet one more reason to get back to the bargaining table and get an agreement,” Aiello said. “But there is no question that a strike or lockout triggers rights under a federal law known as COBRA that allows employees to continue their existing health insurance coverage without interruption or change in terms — either at their expense or their union’s expense.

“This means that no player or family member would experience any change in coverage for so much as a single day because of a work stoppage. The union surely knows this, and there is no excuse for suggesting otherwise.”

Aiello also pointed out that the NHL Players Association paid for substitute health coverage for its members during the 2004-05 lockout.

For his part Smith is trying to send a message to football fans --- we are all one, labourers in a fight together.

"You injure one, you injure us all," Smith said at Minnesota’s Eagle Street Grille. "We're going to stand as one with our fans. We're going to stand as one with the people who get their hands dirty and work to bring this game to every fan in America. We believe this lockout is not good for America. We know it's a bad thing for people who dig football as much as I do."

"Concession workers. Food preparers. Security. Trade workers. Right off the bat, there will be thousands that depend on that work," she said. "But it's also important to remember beyond that, hotels, restaurants and businesses that cater to game folks, they also lose."

So let’s understand what DeMaurice Smith is trying to say – Joe the Plumber (remember Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher from the 2008 American Presidential Election) and the 1,900 members of the NFLPA are one and the same? The average NFL salary was a shade under $1.8 million in 2009, but that can be a misleading number. Less than a quarter of the roughly 1,800 NFL players made that amount last year, and less than half make a million dollars per season. And the average NFL career is three years, but to suggest the tens of millions of Americans who watch football every Sunday are somehow remotely related in terms of what they do to NFL football players is silly.

“Yes, they probably are paid more than others. The time that they work is probably less. But the chance of injuries is much greater," Shar Knutson, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO offered. "They won't be able to get health insurance in March. Even if you do make a good wage, there's something unfortunate about that.

"They're union members. We'll support them as union members. And just the fact that in this area the Vikings are so revered, people won't be happy with the bosses if they end up going into a lockout."

For its part the AFL-CIO isn’t doing anything to help the NFL labor situation – except garner press coverage and create more confusion.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka sent a letter to both sides on September 30“offering” to help both sides reach a new labor agreement.

"I would like to invite you both to meet with me to discuss how an agreement might be reached," the letter reads. "I believe such a meeting would be an immediate and important step toward saving football for the 2011 season and avoiding the significant job losses that will occur if owners lock out the players and cancel games."

Mr. Trumka if you were objectively interested in helping and not hindering the process, you might be advised to at least ensure anyone associated with the AFL-CIO doesn’t comment in favour of one side (the NFLPA) as Knutson did in Minneapolis last week.

ESPN’s Lester Munson shared these thoughts on whether or not Trumka could be of any help in setting this battle.

“It's hard to imagine how Trumka, with all of his other responsibilities as the leader of the AFL-CIO, could sort through the complexities and the antagonism.

“If Trumka wants some advice on the issue, he should perhaps call former president Bill Clinton. After the 1994 baseball work stoppage caused the cancellation of the World Series and had the 1995 season in jeopardy, Clinton thought he could contribute to a settlement. After four hours with the players and the owners, he gave up and suggested arbitration of pending issues, the one thing both sides would not accept.

“It was easier for Clinton to negotiate with the Israelis and the Palestinians than it was to mediate between baseball players and team owners.”

Maybe at least this week the two sides can agree to meet again and have a serious conversation and if you want to be a cockeyed optimist, maybe the two sides will stop dealing in rhetoric and start dealing in the serious issues and challenges they’re facing.

For this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The St. Paul Pioneer Press, and ESPN

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