As time goes on, it becomes clearer that NFL won the lockout war against the players. In yet another setback, Arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled against the NFL Players' Union when he found that Commissioner Roger Goodell has the authority to sanction New Orleans Saints players for participation in a bounty program. ESPN.com broke the news this morning.
Players have long railed against Goodell's authority to penalize them for violations of personal conduct guidelines. Yet, they voted for just that when they ratified the new labor agreement last summer. Why are they complaining now?
Goodell is the sole arbiter of bad behavior under the terms of the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. The union is reduced to attacking it from the edges. The NFL PA appealed Goodell's suspension of Saints' players Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita. Hargrove and Fujita are now with other teams.
The union claimed that any bounties would have been violations of the salary cap, not of personal conduct guidelines. That would make violations subject to negotiation. Burbank disagreed.
The players theme during last year's labor dispute was "Let them play," a theme designed to appeal to fans. It seems the players overlooked some hot button issues in their rush to get back to the field, Goodell's power chief among them.
Growing list of losses
Goodell's unbridled authority raises a growing list of issues for players to grapple with. Salary cap Issues emerged from the arbitration case brought by Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder against the owners.
NFL PA Executive director DeMaurice Smith says the union was coerced to accepting the owners' salary cap sanctions against the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins although they had no real objection to the teams' treatment of player contracts in the no cap year.
The owners threatened to reduce the 2012 salary cap if the union did not go along with the cap sanctions, but offered to raise them slightly if they agreed. The owners sweetened the offer by spreading the Cowboys' and Redskins' cap dollars as credits among 28 other teams.
But, why would the salary cap formula written into the 2011 CBA have led to a lower cap in 2012 than in 2011?
The union discovered there was a secret salary cap of $123 million during the no cap year set by a handshake agreement among the owners. Twenty-eight of the 32 team owners abided by that agreement.
The late Gene Upshaw inserted no cap terms in the 2006 CBA Extension to dissuade the owners from locking out players. The owners overwhelmed that defense and got away with the collusion to bring it about.
Smith says the players may have lost $1 billion in salary opportunity in the no cap year. He's got to be kidding. That amount averages $31.2 million per team, or 25 percent of the secret salary cap. How could the union at the time have missed so large a loss? Smith claims it only became apparent during the Cowboys-Redskins arbitration case.
Washington and Dallas applied the no cap term just as Upshaw intended. Players benefitted. Cap dollars were reallocated from the two teams most likely to use all of it and spread to some teams that will not. The result is lost income potential for players. The union is supposed to guard against that.
Arbitrator Burbank never ruled on the merits of that case. He said that the players and owners amended the CBA itself to write in the adjusted cap for Dallas and Washington. His hands were tied, so he dismissed the charge.
But, that amendment was the result of an agreement letter signed by Smith and Goodell and ratified by the owners, but not by the players. How does that stand up?
I have praised Smith for being smart enough to cut the best deal possible when the players were on the verge of legal setbacks during the 2011 lockout. That opinion holds, but Goodell snookered Smith on this one.
Goodell will never be fired
Roger Goodell is a very sharp lawyer who leads a stable of very sharp lawyers and high powered outside council. He takes impregnable positions based on the labor agreement itself and the law. For that reason, he is undefeated against the players when using the deal that players themselves agreed to.
The new labor agreement indemnified the owners against players' antitrust lawsuits known and unknown at the time the agreement was signed. It separated from discussion federal Judge David S. Doty, the jurist owners love to hate.
Tellingly, the CBA lowered the salary cap to a small market friendly $120.6 million. It was about $128 million and escalating in 2009. Small market teams were pushing the owners towards the no cap year and the lockout.
It is healthier for the league. That is good. But, players must wait for the new broadcasting revenue to commence in 2014 to see the bigger bucks. Their comments now suggests that a few players missed that point in the rush to resume playing last year. About one-third of today's players will not be in the league when the big money flows in.
Small market teams clamored for revenue sharing by big market teams — the unresolved issue that Upshaw sensed would push to owners to the lockout. The salary cap reallocation is backdoor revenue sharing from the league's two wealthiest teams to almost everyone else.
While the views of some fans and many players are cynical when it comes to Goodell's instincts about personal conduct and player safety, the commissioner argues from the high ground on those matters. Some players don't seem to get it (Looking at you, James Harrison).
I do not know what Goodell has on Jonathan Vilma and the Saints players on Bountygate. My money's on the commissioner in Vilma's defamation lawsuit. After a two-year investigation, admissions by the coaches and supposedly 50,000 pages of documents, I am sure that he has it. Goodell could unleash it in a torrent, or drip drip it in prolonged legal torture.
The commissioner orchestrated the labor agreement the owners prescribed. He has positioned the league in an unimpeachable position. He is the boss of bosses, strictly in the football sense. He is The Don. Why would the owners ever let him go?
They are probably scared to.