The NFL's hammer

The news was in The New York Times the other day. At the NFL owners' meeting, as a result of making a deal with Comcast on carrying the NFL Network, the league's deals with CBS and Fox were renegotiated as well. The key point, though, is that the owners will get the network cash even if the league were to lock out the players in a labor dispute in 2011.

From the Times report:

The N.F.L. will receive a 1 to 2 percent increase over the previous contracts that averaged $712 million a year from Fox and $622 million a year from CBS. According to two people with knowledge of the deal who were not authorized to speak about it, the N.F.L. will get that money even if games are not played in 2011. (The networks will receive credits for the payments in following years.)

This is news but it isn't news. As far as I know, every NFL television contract in the modern era has included a clause that calls for payment in the event of a work stoppage, and this clause has affected every labor negotiation the league has ever had. The reason is obvious enough: during a work stoppage, the teams would lose ticket revenue and other sponsorship revenue, but they would continue to receive the TV money, which is about two-thirds of what comes in every season, while not having to pay the players.

In other words, the owners will continue to be able to operate indefinitely while the players lose 100 percent of their income. The players already have short, tenuous careers as it is. It is obvious why these television contracts are such a hammer in any negotiation.

This is not good for the players but it is probably good for the rest of us. Why? Because it would be suicide for the union to allow this thing to get to a work stoppage situation.  The union got a small victory in the last negotiation, which was held in a unique circumstance as former commissioner Paul Tagliabue was taking a valedictory lap. But it was not a huge win, even as the owners complain about the deal, and nobody is worried about anybody's legacy anymore.

The union has one hammer of its own: the Federal court system. The only time it ever won anything that mattered against the league, it was because the union disbanded and sued the NFL for free-agency rights. The current system was birthed out of the union's victory in that lawsuit in the famous case where Reggie White agreed to be listed as the main plaintiff.

It is becoming more and more clear that the union will have to accept some concessions at the bargaining table or head to court before the NFL locks out the players. Maybe that threat of a court fight will give the players a bit of a hammer of their own. We'll see.

But a work stoppage? I don't think so, especially now that the networks have again agreed to bankroll the owners.