Tom Brady, et al. v. National Football League, et al.

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.

Update: James Surowiecki sides with the players:

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.

  • Bret

    Ugh. Hereins, and/ors, doubled end spaces, UNDERLINING?!

    Garner weeps at this complaint.

  • Felton

    As usual, Chris, this is good work. Why are some teams not incorporated in their home states? I note that many teams are incorporated in Delaware and the Saints and the Chiefs are incorporated in Texas (I guess this goes back to Lamar Hunt in Dallas and John Mecom from Houston). Seems like if owners are going to lean on local governments, they could at least incorporate in state.

  • Anonymous

    Felton, I don’t have all the details but I know most corporations prefer to incorporate in states like Delaware with very business friendly laws and governance standards. It’s not uncommon for businesses located in a state not to be registered there.

    Just wait until NFL teams start incorporating in tax havens like Ireland and the Cayman Islands.

  • Rafael

    Okay I’m no fan of the owners here but it seems there is a bias in favor of the Union not only in your post Chris but on ESPN and other major sports media outlets. I realize the owners backed out of the deal, they threatened to and instituted a lockout, and they refused to “fully” open their books but does anyone believe that they haven’t lost money the last 3 seasons in the “Great Recession.” They did what any business owner would do if they lost money and is expected to lose more money every year as a result of the economy. Meanwhile why isn’t anyone really putting the union to the fire for their actions this past week. They didn’t accept the owners deal, which is their right, but they didn’t even try to accept it and they were the ones walking away from the table. No one is asking why but it’s pretty obvious that they believe that Judge Dotty (sorry if I misspelled) will rule in their favor and they won’t have to compromise anything. So really if the judge does rule that the owners can’t lockout they players then the league goes on uncapped and teams will continue to lose money. At that point what incentive do the players have to ever make a bargain when they have a judge in their back pocket. The owners will continue to lose money, more teams will leave small markets and teams will fold (just look at the NBA it’s a mess). And does the Union realize it will have less teams and therefore less jobs for it’s clients. Plus they’re asking the rookies to boycott the draft. Isn’t that extremely selfish of all these players who get to be honored and have a wonderful experience of being on stage in New York. If they didn’t have a pet judge to force legislation than they would still be negotiating. Meanwhile the reason the Union gave for the deal being so “offensive” is because, Smith’s own words on ESPN’s site, the players would give up $500 million the first year then work their way up to a billion progressively for 4 years for a total of close to $4 Billion more money to the owners. But the players would still have approximately $16 billion dollars of money made in those 4 years. Wow only $16 Billion to go around, no wonder they were so offended. The players really didn’t want to negotiate because they believe the courts will allow them to give up no money. If you want to put blame on the owners then they shouldn’t have accepted the previous deal. Are the owners greedy yes but so are the players and it’s time they got some pressure put back on them for their greed as well.

  • dazz

    I think part of why there hasn’t been better coverage from the media is there are almost no labor beat reporters left in the United States (maybe 4? including Greenhouse at the NY Times) — and sports reporters don’t know much of anything about labor law or contract negotiations.

    Add on top of that the fact that the anti-trust angle is fairly unique here and you have a lot of people sorta talking out of their rear.

  • Yo

    I have no sympathy for the owners or the NFL. Like all large corporations, they enjoy a set of rules that much more beneficial to them than the rules we others have to live with. If they need money so much, then open your books and prove it to everybody. If you’re against transparency, then OBVIOUSLY you are hiding something.

    And no more tears about having to build new stadiums: local and state taxpayers foot most of the bills for new stadiums through tax breaks, etc., yet most of them can’t afford to take their family’s to a game.

    If we have to miss a season for football, so be it. If the owners are afraid of going broke, then they should sell their teams and get out of the business. Funny, how rarely that happens.

  • Capitalistdog

    Yo, Yo – “If you’re against transparency, then OBVIOUSLY you are hiding something.” Good thing the framers of our Constitution didn’t have that position. I guess you’re not much of a fan of the 4th Amendment?

  • The irony of this lawsuit is that the likes of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are part of it. Neither would make the money he does in his respective city were it not for the NFL trust that is in operation. No way a team in Indy could pay someone Peyton Manning money without league-based revenue sharing.