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The 5 O'Clock Club: Why NFL players’ strikes are not very effective

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere...

The 5 o’clock club aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

Mike Freeman recently published an opinion piece on Bleacher Report saying that NFL players needed to be ready to strike when the current CBA expires four years from now; the article also discussed what the NFLPA needs to do if they want to ‘win’ a strike.

History shows if NFL players go on strike, they get their ever-loving asses kicked.

The union has fought hard during previous labor actions, but ultimately owners have "won" just about every time. It happened in 1968. It happened in 1982, when a strike led to better salaries and postseason pay, but the hit to players' pocketbooks during the strike led them to rise against union leadership. It happened in 1987, when owners employed replacement players for a few weeks. And it happened in the 2011 lockout, when the owners forced the players to reduce their share of revenues from 53 percent to 48 percent.

The current CBA expires after the 2020 season, and two things seem evident. One, there almost certainly will be some type of labor action—likely a strike—born out of the feeling that NFL players' salaries have fallen far behind those of players in the NBA and MLB. And, two, the players will probably lose.

The obstacles facing the players in such a standoff are significant.

Geoff Schwartz, a former offensive lineman who played with five NFL teams, told B/R he saw only one way for the players to best the owners. "Sit out games," Schwartz said. "Plain and simple."

Complicating matters even more is a union membership that is a lot less unified than the group of 32 owners. "I don't think we can get 2,000 guys to strike," Schwartz added. "Too big a gap in pay. Plenty of guys would cross the line and play."

Even some of those players not making star salaries may not be too committed to a labor cause. "I think young players would see [a strike] as an opportunity for money and film," Schwartz explained. "They don't have a strong connection to the NFLPA."

In effect, it's simply a question of firepower. The owners are worth billions. The players are worth millions.

Freeman goes on to outline five steps that he believes the NFLPA should be taking right now to prepare for the battle that’s looming in 2021:

No. 5: Start

No. 4: Convince younger players why a strike is vital

No. 3: Get as nasty as the owners

No. 2: Put the quarterbacks front and center

No. 1: Be willing to sacrifice the season

There’s one really interesting/amusing passage in that part of the article that seems worth re-printing here:

During the 1987 players' strike, [Cowboys owner Tex] Schramm once told [Gene] Upshaw [head of the players union], "Don't you see? You're the cattle, we're the ranchers."

That remains partially true, unfortunately, except at one position: quarterback.

The union would be wise to create a rotating panel of quarterbacks who, in the event of a lockout or strike, would hold press conferences daily. Tom Brady one day. Russell Wilson the next. Aaron Rodgers on another day. On and on it would go.

Pair the quarterbacks with union officials and lawyers who can answer the more technical questions. Owners are terrified of their quarterbacks. That's because they hold so much power.

Personally, I don’t think that there’s any way for the NFLPA to prevail in a labor dispute with the owners. The structure of the NFL, the nature of NFL contracts, the relatively short duration of player careers, the youth and lack of sophistication of most players, the inequity in salaries between star players and the rest of the league... the list of issues that mitigate against players prevailing against the league owners is imposing.

Jason Fitzgerald, writing on OverTheCap, detailed many of the reasons why the NFLPA is not well-positioned to succeed in a players’ strike.

the reality is it is going to be very difficult to get a group of players to ever consider a strike and before you can use a strike to win you need somewhere around 2,000 players to feel loyhal to the cause. That is not easy. The biggest issue just deals with the economics of the NFL and the general lack of a foundation to “rally” the players around the idea.

The economic reality of the league is that the majority of the money is tied up in a very small portion of NFL players. While they are not earning as much as their NBA counterparts the average salaries of these players is very high. The league is likely on pace to spend about $5 billion in salaries to players this year. About 17% of that total will go to 50 players. 50% of the total will go to just 250 players, about 12% of the entire league population.

While buy in from these top players is important since they are the stars of the league, they should be economically in a position to sacrifice for some big goals; the 75% of the players who make up just 30% of the league’s wealth is not. For the young players in that group you are potentially asking them to sacrifice the rest of their career [in a player strike]. Around 45% of players drafted in the 7th round are cut by the first year of their draft and 35% of 6th rounders don’t make it to year 2. The 5th round is about 30%. UDFAs are obviously less. On the veteran end you have many guys going for a last payday and hoping they have one more year where they can make the league and pocket around $1 million.

So many of the topics that are touched on are going to benefit the 250 players in the league who have already “made it”. There are probably just as many on the low end who would effectively be giving up their careers, some before it ever got started, by striking. It would be near impossible for the union to expect those players to not cross unless there is something concrete in it for them.

Last season there were about 1,270 players who were on contracts that averaged the veteran’s minimum ($1.065 million) or less. Currently about 15% of those players, about 195 in all, are no longer under contract to a NFL team. We are not yet even in training camp and rosters have to be slashed from 90 to 53 so you can be sure that number will likely at least double by September. The upper echelon (those over the minimum) has lost about 12%, or about 100 players. That number will grow too but not nearly as much over the next month.

Either way it’s pretty simple to see that a strike is likely going to mean that close to 25% of those supporting the strike are effectively giving away their career for the strike, most of whom did not make much playing the game. Most of those players have not been fortunate enough to be in a position where their earning power has put them in a position to be in a good financial position. It’s a very hard sell to those players.

On top of those numbers there are also a good chunk of players aiming for free agency that would likely have their contracts toll if a strike occurred. That’s another year of injury risk. That’s one less year of earning power. That again is a hard sell.

Fitzgerald, like Freeman, says briefly and vaguely that the union should be taking steps now to set up for victory in 2021, but you can tell his heart isn’t really in it. He doesn’t believe that the players can win. Neither does Freeman, despite his 5-step program.

Fitzgerald ends his piece by outlining 3 broad areas where the NFLPA should attempt to make progress in the next round of labor negotiations.

Fitzgerald’s focus is very much on creating greater equity for players across the league; he argues that the current CBA provided benefits mainly for the elite players and NFL superstars. He rightly says that asking ‘rank & file’ players with shorter careers and comparatively lower earnings to give up game checks to get a ‘win’ for top-100 players isn’t realistic. That’s why his focus is on three key areas:

  1. Ensure the bottom tier is paid.
  2. Raise minimum salaries and growth rates.
  3. Reduce contract length/increase escalators

Personally, I think that Fitzgerald has a clear view of the situation.

The NFLPA needs to have an equally clear vision of what it wants to achieve, and it needs a realistic strategy for achieving its goals. Past labor negotiations & disputes in the NFL have seemed haphazard and ‘patchwork’. The owners have had a clear view, an organized strategy, a coherent plan and a united front, while the players were unable to pull together as a single unit with clearly identifiable goals and effective strategies.

We’re four years away from the end of the current CBA, but some players like Richard Sherman are already beginning to make public statements to prepare the ground. I can’t help but think that he is talking to NFL fans in part, and to current players in part — but predominately aiming the message at young men playing in, or about to enter, college football. After all, those players, who are currently mostly under the legal drinking age, are the ones who are going to have to make the tough decision to strike four years from now.

The next four years will see a lot of articles, public proclamations, and tweets — especially between February and July each year — designed to win the hearts and minds of the 300 or so players per year who will enter the league each off-season. Those 1,000+ players will mostly have very little likelihood of personal gain from a player strike, but lots of people between now and then will be trying to convince them to strike anyway.

As always, it will be an uphill battle.


What will happen in 2021, after the expiration of the current CBA?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    Nothing — a new CBA will be signed without significant issues
    (16 votes)
  • 33%
    Some loss of OTAs, training camp time, and maybe some pre-season
    (26 votes)
  • 11%
    Players will strike for 1 or 2 regular season games
    (9 votes)
  • 9%
    Players will strike for several regular season games
    (7 votes)
  • 2%
    Players will strike for the entire season
    (2 votes)
  • 22%
    Owners will lock players out as part of the negotiation
    (17 votes)
77 votes total Vote Now