As I sat down at the conference room table, the meeting was already in progress (hey, I got a 9-to-5). With my head down, I sunk into my chair and started to listen to what George Attallah (NFLPA Assistant Executive Director) had to say about the ongoing talks with the NFL owners. I had to do a double-take. The dude sounds exactly like Kevin Spacey. Exactly. It was like having Kaiser Soze himself lecturing on the state of the NFLPA. Awesome.
Before I even had enough time to nail which Kevin Spacey movie Atallah sounded most like (either American Beauty or Swimming with Sharks), DeMaurice Smith was in the room and we were getting the union's case presented to us in full color. I quickly discovered what had drawn so many members of the union to DeMaurice Smith. He does his best not to mix words and he spells out points in a way that make his angle seem like not just the most logical but also the most just.
We Meringolo's have long been pro-labor people. But this issue is going to be pretty messy before it gets cleaned up and solved. The NFLPA thought enough of Hogs Haven to bring Kevin and I in to educate us on the situation. Instead of taking sides at this point, perhaps it just makes sense to lay out as much of what we were told as possible so that we can all be a little better armed to make that decision when we are ready. Knowing is half the battle I am told.
Right away Smith told us that a lot of the player reps and their spouses/families were in town. "The strength of the PA is the wives. They ask the best questions and they have the kinds of issues on their minds that we spend our time dealing with: safety, security, stability." In fact this point was reiterated throughout the day, as players themselves confirmed that it was the wives and significant others who do a great job of raising topics up the flagpole and getting them addressed. According to DeMaurice, "1900 players translates into about 5200 'family people'" and they are as much a part of what the NFLPA is about as anything else. When a wife asks, "What happens to our health care in the event of a lockout?" it hits home.
"We don't spend a lot of time talking about the game of football here. We talk about the business of football. The game itself is neither the nature or tone of our discussions," said Smith, as he moved into a few finer points of what they deal with in their membership. "Just about 25% of our membership is out of football every year. It takes 3 seasons to get 5 years of health care [after you retire]. If you play less than 3 years you get no health care. The average NFL career is just over 3 seasons. So we are struggling just to get guys a very small amount of health care. Also take into consideration that for the average player who gets into the league around 22-23 years old and shuffles out at the age of 27 or so, his health care lasts him until he is 32 years old. Now, when do you think he needs health care coverage the most? When is is 30 years old or when he is 50 years old?"
We started to delve into more of what the owners and union were actually negotiating over. The owners want $1 billion "back" from the players in the next deal. This, according to the NFLPA, would put the union back into the late 1970's. That does not sit well with the union.
The TV contracts are a huge issue in all of this. You see, the NFL renegotiated their deals in the last few years. Apparently, they secured a provision from the networks that would essentially pay the NFL regardless of any lockout or football-less period of time. DeMaurice Smith was incredulous. They could not have gotten that deal from a bank. They could not have gotten that deal from an insurance company. The union is crying foul and they want to study the relevant contracts to dig deeper. Smith says, "All we care about is the truth. If the TV deals turn out to be a $4 billion dollar guarantee to the league to do absolutely nothing, then fine. We just want to know. But when you are the ones with the power to shut down the game, and you secure $4 billion in the event you shut it down...is that right?"
He went on to say, "In the last 15 years the average team has grown 500%. What business in America has grown 500% in 15 years? There are two measures of business success: Profit/cash flow and the more attractive and sustainable measure of success that is asset value. These NFL teams could capitalize their business for a 500% increase over where it was 15 years ago." We asked him how much do they really know about the TV deals? Smith answered, "We have been allowed to look at it in terms of revenue. We are not allowed to look at league or team profit data. We do not have access to all of the numbers necessary to calculate profit data. We are not partners to those contracts. We have been told by the league that their profit data is 'none of our business'."
At this, DeMaurice got indignant. "None of our business??!! Come on. You want $1 billion dollars from us. What if we gave them $1 billion dollars and in return the NFL gave us an equivalent value in Class B shares in the NFL? Make it so players can't cash them in until they turn 40 or so. It would help solve part of our pension problem. And it would put us squarely in line to benefit from the success which we are so essential to. The NFL said no to that idea. The NFL says that $25 billion is the revenue target for 2027. Everyone is incentivised to grow revenue--players and owners. Get both parties involved in growing the business, invested in the business."
The other main topic of the day was health and safety of the union's members. "There isn't a person out there who has not come to grips with not just the issue of concussions, but the nature of the way you treat them. We continue to brief members on the Hill every day. There is no uniform medical standard across the NFL for when a player is able to return and play. What do we do to make sure everyone has the same baseline standards for when a player is to return to play? I am very focused on the issue of disincentives to players for reporting injuries. Players need to feel safe to list injuries. I believe that Congress as well as every state and local official has an interest in occupational safety administration. When you peel back the luster of the NFL, they are more like other traditional labor unions. Do we have a safe place to work? Do we have a good deal or not with the owners?"
So we asked Smith: What's your level of optimism this can all get settled?
"I'm optimistic because our fans love football and the players want to play. It seems to me that 2 of the 3 necessary parties want to get it done. No one has said that teams are losing money. I am optimistic."
We pressed him on the individual matters of extending the season, increasing the rosters, rookie pay scale, etc. But Smith indicated that they simply could not afford to piecemeal this thing.
"Every now and then we slip into this discussion that this is a routine bargaining negotiation and it's not--they want us to go backwards. They want us to negotiate with blindfolds on by not showing the audited financials of the teams. If we increase to 18 games in the regular season, how is that going to change the vesting plan for health care? If we increase the rosters, what does that mean for the cap. Bye weeks are affected, the offseason is affected. The rookie pay scale is something we have proposed that gets instituted but we want to make sure that the money not getting paid to rookies goes to proven veterans. The NFL has not agreed to this. We are willing to contribute some of these monies to put into a fund to support retired players. The NFL did not want to do that. When we were in Indy and we all agreed that the rookie plans would save about $200 million. The players were content to send $100 million to retired veterans and the other $100 to proven veterans. It's the players' money. We are disagreeing on how you spend...OUR money? Huh?"
George Atallah put it simply: "We have told the agents to make the clients aware that they need to prepare for a lockout."
The best line of the day also came from George "Kaiser Soze" Atallah. He was talking about the sacrifices that the union was prepared to make if in fact things were as dire as some owners are indicating. "If football's gotta be saved, we'll save football."
Who wouldn't want that guy in his corner?
One final note: I simply could not let it go and had to ask an Albert Haynesworth-related question. Here is what I found out...the characterization by Haynesworth's agent that the NFLPA "advised" him on which moves to make and what was okay or not okay is simply incorrect. It turns out that Chad Speck (Albert's agent) played that up a bit. While the NFLPA did make them aware of certain consequences for certain actions, it was a) nothing they wouldn't have done for any other player; and b) not at all a situation where they advised Haynesworth to sit out. Let's just say they are less than pleased that the story was that the NFLPA advised Haynesworth on what to do.
Gird your loins sports fans. This ride promises to be bumpy. We will do our best to get an interview and present the opposing side when we can. I am sure Snyder will open his financials for me to study and report on.