Read the complaint here. There is more to say about the NFL CBA dispute (here’s a summary of some, but not all, of the legal issues here), but that’s one of the issues here: No one knows what to think or who to listen to. As interesting as the legal issues are (and they are pretty interesting, though not as interesting as, say, the old free agency fight the players won), the fascinating thing to me is the complete breakdown in the quality of media coverage. This is not surprising or even fair to the genuinely diligent reports who have gotten to where they are and spend their days talking to football people about football things — who is hurt this week, will Donovan McNabb be traded, is Bill Belichick videotaping someone, what blitz package will Pittsburgh use — suddenly are forced to understand rather complex anti-trust and labor issues. Indeed, the labor law and anti-trust law are individually extremely complex, and their interaction — with a splash of straight up negotiating bravado — makes this all difficult to wrap your head around, particularly in football, which is built on easy narratives.
As a result, suddenly reliable sources (“Fred Taylor won’t start this week because of his ankle problem, though the team isn’t talking”) is suddenly completely uninformative, even if honest (“I’m not a lawyer but Bob Kraft told me the deal gets done tomorrow”). Nothing that has happened is at all surprising, and yet the media acts like it has been and has consistently failed to bring any coherence. That’s why the people to listen to — and I’ve yet to completely find them, and it’s not necessarily me who has not dived in to the details enough — is someone who knows complex labor negotiations and the state of antitrust law on reasonable restraints of trade, not the guy who accurately broke Spygate.
But again, I can’t fault the Chris Mortensens or Adam Schefters — they are in the same positions that fans, with an extra monetary penalty if there is no season. ESPN isn’t in the tank for either side (at least I don’t think), but instead is in the tank for getting a deal done: if there’s no football ESPN loses money, and if it loses money there might not be a need for Mortensen or Schefter, or certainly not the many people operating on the fringes who want to reach that place. They, like you and me and everyone else, don’t really care what the split of $9 billion in revenue is: in the immortal words of David Cross, we don’t care what else is going on in the world, why won’t somebody pick up the ball and play some damn football.
With the possible exception of the members of OPEC, N.F.L. owners have pretty much the coziest business arrangement imaginable: they’re effectively members of a cartel—able to limit competition, enhance bargaining power, and hold down costs. Instead of competing against each other for TV money, the owners share it, reducing risk and guaranteeing steady revenue regardless of how well they run their teams. The result of all this was nicely summed up by Richard Walden, head of sports finance at JPMorgan Chase, who said, “I’ve never seen an N.F.L. team lose money.”…You might say that that’s capitalism—those who provide the capital for an enterprise deserve to reap the profits. But the N.F.L. isn’t capitalist in any traditional sense. The league is much more like the trusts that dominated American business in the late nineteenth century, before they were outlawed. Its goal is not to embrace competition but to tame it, making the owners’ businesses less risky and more profitable. Unions are often attacked for trying to interfere with the natural workings of the market, but in the case of football it’s the owners, not the union, who are the real opponents of the free market. They have created a socialist paradise for themselves that happens to bring with it capitalist-size profits. Bully for them. But in a contest between millionaire athletes and billionaire socialists it’s the guys on the field who deserve to win.