Wealth, glory fail to quell NFL squabbles

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In 1994, when the National Football League instituted a salary cap, the limit was about $35 million. This year, it is $116.7 million. By my math, that's more than a 300 percent increase in 15 years.

Don't we all wish we were so fortunate. Don't we all wish if we were making $500 a week in 1994, we would be making $1,500 a week today. Don't we all wish we worked in a business that is not affected by economic downturns and where the number of jobs never decreases.

It's not just the players who have flourished. It's the owners, too. The salary cap is taken from 59 percent of gross revenue. The 41 percent the owners keep also has increased more than 300 percent. It's possible that profit has not increased at such a level, but, rest assured, it's close.

The NFL is the most popular sport in a sports-crazed society. The public can't get enough, and tickets in most cities are not available. Television can't get enough with games now being shown as often as four days a week. Both union and management should be rejoicing in this glory. Instead, they are squabbling and getting ready for a much bigger fight.

Last week, the NFL voted unanimously -- something it almost never does -- to invoke the opt-out clause of its current contract with the players union. The owners don't think 59 percent of the pie is big enough for them.

Both sides have merit to their arguments.

The players, for example, although making fabulous salaries, have the shortest careers among professional athletes in the four major sports. What's more, their money, beyond signing bonuses, is not guaranteed. A productive player might have four years and $20 million left on a contract, but if he injures his knee or breaks his leg and can no longer play at the same level, he won't get the final years of that deal. By comparison, all the money in a baseball contract is guaranteed.

That being the case, it's easy to see why union head Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame player in his day, is reluctant to give back any of the gains his union has won at the collective bargaining table.

Upshaw himself is a distraction, who might best be removed from this drama. In some circles, he's viewed as a weak leader who is too much in the pocket of NFL management and ownership. In other circles, he's viewed as a pawn of the powerful agents. Proof of that is Upshaw is not pushing for a rookie salary cap. It would make sense if he did, since a cap would mean more money in the pockets of the veteran players, who are the men he works for. But a rookie salary cap also would take money out of the pocket of the agents by cutting way down on fabulous signing bonuses. Upshaw is seen as reluctant to cross the agents, which is why some players are trying to push him out.

The owners, for the most part, are men of fabulous wealth, which means they didn't get that way by negotiating soft contracts and not demanding the biggest piece of the pie they could get. Nor are they concerned about the threat of 2010 being an uncapped season, which some see as driving them toward an agreement -- any agreement.

An uncapped season conjures up visions of owners gone wild and doling out fabulous salaries to every available free agent. Actually, the uncapped year is considerably more owner-friendly. Remember, these guys don't usually negotiate stupid deals.

Here are some of the rules for the uncapped year:

• To become a free agent, six years of service time -- not the usual four -- are required.

• The eight teams with the best records in 2009 would be prevented from signing free agents unless they lost free agents to other teams.

• Every team would have two transition tags, instead of one, which would mean they could prevent three players from leaving -- two by transition tags and one by the franchise tag.

• With no cap, there also is no floor. Teams that might otherwise be forced to have a payroll of about $80 million under the old system could have a payroll of $40 million -- or less.

What does all this mean?

It means the current maneuvers are nothing but posturing for better position when the talks get serious. And they will. And when they do, as always, wiser heads will prevail.

When the value of your product and the amount of your salary is increasing by amounts that would make a common man drool, you don't take time off.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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