The National Football League lockout was like a long Midwest winter, the kind that makes people save money for a home in Arizona.
Conflicting court decisions, leverage-minded press releases and false leads on resolution made the NFL skies appear grayer and grayer.
The lockout’s end has brought the same enthusiasm as the first sunny day of spring. Players are excitedly returning to the game like kids on the first day of Pop Warner practice. Owners are elated that the money will indeed be rolling in by the bucket-loads again. Team employees are glad that same money will put food on their families’ tables. And the fans are feasting on a frenzied free-agency period and a quick start to actual football!
In retrospect, the lockout was not all bad. I believe there was a shiny silver lining in its gloomy reign over pro football. I believe the game is now healthier than ever and a robust framework is in place to prevent another nasty offseason battle from materializing. Now that the lockout has ended, there is an argument that it was “good” in a number of ways.
Owners and players have worked successfully together for years in a special employer/employee relationship; special because of the unique position of the players (a super-employee of sorts that is resource, labor, and final product combined). Both sides likely thought they were familiar with their counterparts, but the lockout allowed the parties to truly become acquainted.
Owners learned that the players were more strategically and intellectually gifted than expected. They also learned that strong labor leadership could produce player solidarity even in the individualist era of pro football. Likewise, players found that the owners didn’t become wealthy by chance: they DO NOT play when it comes to the balance sheet. While players will never know if the league was truly hemorrhaging funds, they did learn that the NFL will do what it takes to ensure that all owners feel comfortable investing in the growth of America’s game.
Call it what you will, but as a businessperson, you must respect it.
More personal in character were the opportunities for growth in individual players. While the NFLPA has always produced an intelligent, business-savvy player board, the average player hasn’t always been so conversant in the particulars of sports business. He certainly is now. Additionally, not knowing when the next paycheck will arrive allowed many players to get a feel for how they will have to live when they enter the “real world” after football. It is my hope that this will prevent the current crop of NFL athletes from following the disastrous financial paths walked by many former players.
Leaders coming of age
From my arm’s length view, the heads of both the NFL and the NFLPA earned their stripes (and their paychecks) during this lockout. DeMaurice Smith always carried a charismatic presence. It’s why the player board elected him NFLPA chief a few years back even though he was the out-of-nowhere candidate. He turned out to be not only a dynamic speaker, but a visionary strategist.
Although things didn’t go perfectly according to plan, his vision proved resilient and he was able to successfully steer the players home. His transparency with players was a new development in NFLPA conduct that, in my opinion, kept players from fracturing as the going got tough. His openness certainly converted this long-time union cynic to cautious-but-serious supporter. I am not nearly as familiar with Commissioner Goodell, but nonetheless give him credit for picking up the mantle of leadership. Getting the owners of 32 teams, in 32 unique markets, with 32 specific needs to coalesce is no small task.
Add to that the fact that owners are brilliant businessmen, confident in their respective business track records, and the commissioner’s work deserves a standing ovation.
Because these two men were made stronger through the lockout’s rigors, the business state of the game has been likewise strengthened.
Football is now truly a business
Most importantly, the way in which the NFL and the NFLPA interact over the Collective Bargaining Agreement is forever changed. Under the leadership of Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, collective bargaining got done, in large part, through the conduit of their friendship. It appears they each fully trusted that the other was able and willing to steer his constituents in the best direction for the long-term health of the game. They trusted one another to do this without screwing the other side over in the many dirty details of the negotiation.
Their respective constituencies had faith in their leaders to handle business this way.
As they opted out of the former CBA, owners claimed that the two men had a gentlemen’s agreement that the deal would be re-done at some point. If true, this is a case-in-point. This “golf buddy” method of doing business works rather smoothly. It is, however, completely dependent on the friendship of the two men at the top. Because of the nasty rhetoric voiced during the 2011 lockout, the relationship of players and ownership will likely never be like this again. There is now a mildly adversarial tension between the two groups expressed in a healthy distrust of one another. I believe this is a good thing.
I’ve done business with friends many times and my attention to detail in those partnerships has been, admittedly, sloppier than usual. Because I had established a level of trust with them, I didn’t flesh out all the details. I foolishly figured we could adjust things later if an issue arose. As a result, most of these endeavors came back to bite me in some way. The times I’ve done business with strangers, especially hyper-aggressive stereotypical business types, I was certain I’d closed every possible loophole and fully evaluated risk. Heck, I’d even had industry-specific experts sign off on the contract language. As a result, there were no surprises and far less drama as these ventures played out. This is the better way to do business.
The meticulousness that comes with an atmosphere of distrust produces sound business transactions and lasting agreements. I believe this is why there is now a decade-long CBA for which neither side seriously sought an opt-out clause. Both sides have checked every corner of fine print, read every footnote, are fully aware of their respective “wins” and “losses,” and are comfortable with them moving forward. As long as the two groups remain cordial but don’t go back to being “buddy-buddy” labor partners, this is likely the stability we’ll see from here on out. And for everyone who cares about the game of pro football, this is a very good byproduct of a very bad NFL offseason. Here’s to the sunny days that lie ahead.