Last Friday night (March 11th), the NFL Player's Association officially dissolved itself, pulling out of mediated discussions with the NFL over the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that has been a hot topic within the league for two years now. The dissolution of the NFLPA was quickly followed by the filing of a class-action anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL by a coallition of NFL players including Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees in order to end the owner-initiated player lockout that began after the union's decertification.
Over the course of the past year, the NFL has made a slew of unpopular decisions including:
- Increasing fines and penalty severity for defensive players who commit head-to-head collisions with other players (but strangely not imposing any restrictions on offensive player's ability to lower their heads prior to a collision, or for putting themselves in positions of vulnerability). The league cited concerns for "player safety" in light of an increasing number of severe, long-term damage from concussions.
- Moving the umpire to behind the offensive line of scrimmage, forcing teams in no-huddle or 2-minute drills to wait for the umpire to position himself before being able to snap the ball.
- Demanding that the season be increased to 18 games, which would seem to be in stark contrast of their earlier commitment to "player safety" (a longer season means more time for players to suffer severe injuries). They even proposed taking the 2 extra games out of the preseason, giving players less time to adjust their bodies to the demands of the start of the season.
- Moving the Pro Bowl game to be the week before the Super Bowl and allowing Super Bowl players to skip the Pro Bowl with no penalty.
- Becoming increasingly involved in player's personal lives.
- Instigation stricter drug and performance-enhancement testing.
Now, obviously, some of these decisions are relatively benign or perfectly understandable. The NFL most certainly has the same right as any other business to ensure that its players are drug-free, and that they are not using performance-enhancing substances.
However, the whole "helmet-to-helmet collision" fiasco, combined with the requested change to an 18-game regular season (at the cost of removing 2 preseason games), essentially expose the NFL as a hippocratic money-first business. Imposing penalties and fines on defensive players for (and only on defensive players) for head-to-head collisions under the banner of "player safety", while simultaneously complaining that fans don't attend preseason games (and therefore, those games don't make any money) as your primary justification for wanting to increase the length of the regular season (despite the fact that players are more likely to get hurt by playing more games) just looks like an attempt to make more money. You are only willing to protect the safety of your players so long as they continue to make money for the league. Fans pay to see the star players. Having that player on the sideline with an injury means less fans in the stadium, and fewer fans buying that player's jerseys in stores. And the fact that you don't bother to enact rules designed to limit how offensive players can perform or to fine offensive players or coaches for putting themselves and their teammates in vulnerable positions points to a desire to keep games exciting and high-scoring. Your desire to protect players is a business decision. That's it.
The NFL was willing, however, to make a lot of concessions to the Player's Union in their most recent deal proposal:
- Keeping a 16-game regular season schedule for at least two more years, and only allowing the schedule to be increased with player consent.
- Full acceptance of the Union's proposed salary cap.
- Implementation of the Union's proposed rookie wage scale, the savings from which would go towards veteran salaries and benefits, and retired players.
- Increasing retirement benefits for retired players and the addition of a life-long medical plan for current players.
- Guaranteed payment of a player's salary (up to $1 million) for the year following a major injury.
It seemed like the Player's Union was going to come out on top in this deal. Except there was one (apparently major) issue that was left unresolved. The NFL's new deal cut back the percentage of the NFL's shared revenue (over $9 billion) that went towards paying player salaries on the grounds that many team owners were losing money due to the old percentage requirement. OK, this seems like a fairly reasonable compromise considering that the NFL was willing to give in to all of the NFLPA's major requests. But while the NFL was requesting that the players receive a lower percentage of the league's revenue, the NFL was also refusing to allow the Player's Union access to the financial ledgers that supposedly would document the unprofitableness of the previous percentage with regards to the teams and owners.
The Player's Union wouldn't buy it. And with the clock ticking, and the league and owners dragging their feet on this last important aspect of the negotiations, the Player's Union felt that it had no choice but to dissolve and allow the players themselves to file a class-action anti-trust lawsuit against the league in an attempt to gain access to those financial documents.
Considering the two-headedness of the league with regard to their stand on "player safety" and their almost diametrically-opposite desire for a longer regular season, I can't say that I blame the Player's Union for this action.
The league owners have followed suit by locking out the players, creating the first NFL work-stoppage since 1987.
Will there be NFL football this August? Who knows.
It very well could be that the only NFL football fans will have access to this year will be the Madden NFL 2012 video game (assuming the game even gets released without an actual NFL season).
And with the players filing an anti-trust lawsuit against the league, we, as gamers could see some rather interesting outcomes - both desirable and horrific.
On the upside, any ruling against the NFL that nullifies its over-arching control over all the individual NFL teams, players, stadiums, and so forth could also nullify its video-game exclusivity contract with Electronic Arts, maker of the Madden video games. This would allow rival studios, such as 2K Sports (maker of the immensely popular ESPN NFL 2k5 video game) and Natural Motion (makers of the ambitious, but less-than-satisfactory Backbreaker game), to jump back into the foray of licensed NFL football video games from which they have been prohibited for the past 6 years. This would be a dream come true for many in the sports video gaming community who believe that NFL 2K5 was the pinnacle of simulation football gaming, and that EA has squandered its exclusivity deal, producing lackluster products with minimal improvements and gimmicky features.
However, such legal rulings could also have some potentially devastating consequences. If the NFL were to lose its unified control over the legal rights to each individual NFL team, potential NFL video game makers would no longer only have to sign a deal with the NFL in order to make an NFL-licensed football game. They would also need the individual permission of each and every team owner for the rights to the team's names, logos, uniforms, and stadiums; the rights to use player names and likenesses would have to be obtained from the Player's Union (assuming that it would be reinstated after litigation is concluded), as well as coach names and likenesses needing to come from the Coach's Union.
This would mean that there would be potential for some teams to grant access to their names and likenesses to some game studios, but not to others. For example, EA's Madden game could claim the exclusive rights to teams like the New England Patriots, Pittsburg Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, and Philadelphia Eagles. While 2K's NFL 2K series could get the exclusive rights to only the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders, and New York Jets. Only a few low-revenue teams, such as the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, and Jacksonville Jaguars, may allow their likenesses to be sold to multiple studios. Or vice versa: maybe the lower-revenue teams (like the Jaguars) would seek out higher-paying exclusive deals while the larger-budget teams (like the Cowboys) would sell to whoever asks.
Even worse: we could end up with team or divisions signing up for exclusive games. Imaging a world in which all 32 NFL teams have their own stand-alone video game. All coming from different game studios, and all having only the one licensed team represented.
As much as I'd love to see 2K get back into making NFL-licensed games, I really don't know if I'd be willing to buy ESPN NFC West Football 2K13...