I wish I could say, “I don’t know how the NFL got here.” But I do know, and it sucks all the more.
The news peg to this is that Eric Reid has filed a grievance against the NFL accusing them of collusion, stemming from the player demonstrations of the past few years. The NFL Players Association has announced that it will support Reid and is pursuing its own legal options.
While the NFL has had success in recent years fighting off collusion charges, it should be careful of its history. Radovich v. National Football League was the largest case the league faced when it came to blackballing, and the league lost that case in a Supreme Court ruling. Its defeat forced the league to accept the nascent NFLPA, overhaul its business practices and opened the way for competing leagues.
The case brought by Reid under the collective bargaining agreement, and the looming CBA negotiations, could prove a catalyst for all the problems the NFL has ignored or deflected to come home to roost.
At this point, I’m exhausted from talking about Reid and Colin Kaepernick and the anthem and protests and lethal cop violence visited upon unarmed black men, and I’m sure many are too. Some are exhausted for different reasons than I. Some just don’t want to hear about it, while many are exhausted that nothing has changed.
And I promise, this isn’t just about this particular issue, but rather a whole aggregate that has put this sport into a precarious situation.
Have the demonstrations done harm to football? Yes, but you would be a fool to blame the players for it. The calls for football to be punished for being a “liberal” institution—like you could put that label on any sport that just loves flying stealth bombers over stadiums—comes from right-wing commentators who raised hell and wouldn’t stop raising it.
Rather than reaffirm their employees’ rights to expression and the social status that comes with being a professional athlete in this country, the owners attempted to assuage both sides.
The owners didn’t need to throw their employees under the bus. They didn’t need to kowtow to those howling wolves with microphones, those cheerleaders for boycott and discontent, those distractions from the outside.
And they certainly didn’t need to try to have it both ways and shuffle Reid and Kaepernick away, hoping the matter would be forgotten.
But I said this wasn’t just about this particular issue. The collusion cases are just at the forefront of the issues facing football, and they will come to a head.
That looming sword swinging above their heads is the CBA negotiations. At this point, it would take a miracle to mend fences and bring the league and NFLPA back to extend it for years to come. The union, one of the weakest in North American sports, has allowed the league to dictate too much of the damage and weaken player power.
It will be about money, this coming battle, be it a lockout or strike. This sport still does not guarantee nearly all of its contracts. It still does not take care of the health of its veterans who leave the league, even as the sport they preside over literally kills them. It still abides by an archaic draft system that sees player salaries collapse arbitrarily depending upon when a player was selected. It still depends on a sole feeder system, the NCAA, that sees fit to deprive athletes of revenue from their likeness and abilities, so that new recruits come into the league with little in their pockets.
But it will be about all the issues that the league has ignored or, when faced with unavoidable scenarios, simply denied to address in meaningful terms. All those issues of money have not been resolved.
The commissioner wielding unchecked power to punish players has not been resolved, no matter how many times dirty laundry threatens to be aired in federal courts.
The deplorable treatment of cheerleaders is boiling over in vicious new ways.
Catch rules? Video review? A labyrinthine rulebook no one can understand? Sluggish play? A pro-style offense that is no longer in sync with what is being taught at lower levels of play? Even baseball lowered the mound in 1968 when they realized no one wanted to see a game without hits.
The concussion crisis has been denied, denied, denied and any lawsuits forced to pennies and promises to go away. That may not be able to be the case much longer, as the matter has finally reached trial.
There is so much more. There is still no farm system, something every other North American sport holds. International outreach to grow the sport caps at most with attempts to shoe-horn a team into Wembley Stadium every Sunday. There are civic battles turning bitter as owners have drawn too much from local coffers for stadium projects, while others have simply shanked cities and left for greener pastures.
Holy Christ! You could make $700 at the nearest recycling center with all the cans the NFL have kicked down the road.
Leadership comes from the top, and leadership takes the blame. And no matter what else they might tell you, the NFL is football. A sport looks to its top echelons for leadership in both soft and hard power, and the NFL has both. And in the absence of any league capable of competing against the NFL, it has the health of sport to consider.
The owners and their chosen commissioner haven’t done that job.
And yet when the CBA rolls around, a predictable cry will emerge. Like Richard Gere in “Chicago,” there will be a parroted cry across the sports media, “the gun, the gun, the gun.” The players make millions, why should they deny you your favorite game on Sunday? The players make millions, they should shut up about politics and play. The players make millions, they should stop complaining that their heads hurt. The players make millions, never mind that we hold billions.
In the past, many have bought that line. Owner-initiated lockouts were treated as a grave failing of the players and the union to be reasonable. But opinions of the owners might not be so high in this coming battle.
If you want to know who has been bringing football low, you need look no further than 32 owners who have collectively failed to address the problems facing their sport for the past two decades, perhaps longer. Football did enough to reach the summit, to overcome baseball in popularity, and its reign has been one of gluttony and complacency.
Football was happy as long as the rubes kept tuning in each week. Anything else was a distraction. What will these issues be when football finally tumbles?