WASHINGTON, March 12, 2011 -- It's difficult to imagine a fall Sunday without the NFL, but the latest moves in the ongoing labor battle between the league and the union representing the players have put the 2011 season in jeopardy and guaranteed that the issue is more likely to be resolved in court than at the negotiating table.
Late Friday, the NFL Players' Association, the union that represents professional football players in labor negotiations, opted to decertify, or dissolve. That means the players have given up their right to collectively bargain and that this issue will likely drag out in court for months.
The NFLPA will continue as a professional trade association with the mission of "supporting the interests and rights of current and former professional football players."
After the union decertification, 10 NFL players, including New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Payton Manning, were named the plaintiffs in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL.
In response, the NFL formally informed the NFLPA that it was imposing a lockout of the players, saying the players forced the issue.
"The union's abandonment of bargaining has forced the clubs to take action they very much wanted to avoid," the league's statement read. "The clubs believe that this step is the most effective way to accelerate efforts to reach a new agreement without disruption to the 2011 season."
This all adds up to no spring practice, no free agency deals and possibly no 2011 season.
The NFLPA and NFL are now engaging in a bitter, but not expected, game of finger pointing, with each side claiming they made reasonable and productive offers and concessions in order to reach a deal.
Late last month, the federal mediator that was asked to step in and referee the negotiating sessions issued a gag order, forbidding either side from talking publicly about what went on behind closed doors.
It looks like now that the union has dissolved and the league has gone to a lockout, both sides are airing their dirty laundry -- and revealing what they brought to the bargaining table and what the other side rejected.
"The union left a very good deal on the table," the NFL said in a statement. "At a time when thousands of employees are fighting for their collective bargaining rights, this union has chosen to abandon collective bargaining in favor of a sham 'decertification' and antitrust litigation. This litigation maneuver is built on the indisputably false premise that the NFLPA has stopped being a union and will merely delay the process of reaching an agreement."
The details are complex, but at the heart of the dispute is still the issue of how to divide up the league's $9 billion in annual revenue. This argument has been going on for nearly two years and neither side has budged, a bad omen for any agreement to save the 2011 season.
Under the most recent collective bargaining agreement, the owners set aside $1 billion of the league's revenue for expenses and the players receive about 60 percent of the rest.
The team owners say that's unsustainable, given the economic downturn, and want to take an additional billion for themselves.
The key sticking point on this issue was financial transparency. The NFLPA has been calling for the owners to open up their books to support their arguments of economic hardship.
There were reports this week that the owners offered to give individual team financial statements to a third party auditor agreed upon with the union. The union could not see the statements firsthand, but the auditor would verify that the data is accurate.
"The NFL demanded a multi-billion dollar giveback and refused to provide any legitimate financial information to justify it," the players' association said in a statement, calling the league's offer "not financial disclosure" and "meaningless."
Second, there's the schedule. The league wants to add two more regular season games, for a total of 18. Players say that would increase their risk of injury, and they deserve compensation.
The head of the NFLPA, DeMaurice Smith, said this week that an 18-game schedule was a non-starter for the union but indicated that it had not been a key item for discussion during negotiations.
"The NFL kept on the table its hypocritical demand for an 18-game season, despite its public claims to be working toward improving the heath and safety of players," the players' association said in a statement.
NFL Lockout: League Says 'We're Trying'
The two sides had been meeting in Washington for more than two weeks, trying to reach a compromise to avert the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987.
"We're discouraged, we're frustrated, we're disappointed, but we are not giving up," NFL executive vice-president and general counsel Jeff Pash said Friday.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell emphasized over the past two months that the league and owners understood that a work stoppage would hurt the clubs, the players, the game, the fans and the league's corporate sponsors.
"If we are unsuccessful [in negotiations], uncertainty will continue," he said during a press conference before the Super Bowl last month. "That uncertainty will lead to a reduction in revenue, and when that revenue decreases there is less for us to share," he said, adding that that would make it harder to reach an agreement.
Goodell and Pash today made good on their pledge to reduce their salaries to $1 if there is a work stoppage. Goodell's normal salary is $10 million per year and Pash is paid $5 million.
The labor dispute comes after what arguably was the NFL's most successful year. Television viewership was up 13 percent and the Super Bowl was watched by a record 111 million people.
At face value, the dispute looks like a fight between billionaire owners and millionaire athletes, but Ryan Clark of the Pittsburgh Steelers called that view "shameful."
NFL Work Stoppage Would Hurt Economy
"I played four years in this league at league minimum, married with a family of three, having to sustain two lives -- and believe me, I was nowhere close to being a millionaire," he told ESPN Wednesday. "The public perception is that it is just two rich groups of people fighting over money, and that's not the case."
The NFL players are highlighting what a work stoppage would mean for the economy in NFL cities.
In meetings last month with members of Congress, including Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and such former NFL players as Reps. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., and Jon Runyan, R-N.J., current and former NFL players focused on how a lockout and canceled season could hurt their communities.
"This Congress is concerned about jobs, jobs and jobs," said Pete Kendall, a former offensive lineman and now a permanent representative on the union's negotiating committee. "A lockout will affect the local economy, not just those who attend the games but those who provide services at the games.
"We're not talking about penalizing players only," Kendall said. "This is going to hurt your parking lot attendants, your restaurants, your hotels. Everybody in your city hurts when this happens."
The NFL insists the changes it is pushing are necessary for the league's long-term financial health.
"This is about the future of our game," Goodell said in January. "There are things that need to be addressed, and we need to address those responsibly so that everybody can win."
Even President Obama seemed irritated that the two sides could not reach compromise.
Obama said at the White House last week that an industry that takes in $9 billion a year in revenue should be able to figure out how to divide that up in a "sensible way" and be true to the sport's fans, who the president said are "the ones who obviously allow for all the money that they're making."
In a statement after decertifying, the union apologized to the undoubtedly many frustrated and worried football fans.
"To the fans, we are sorry it came to this today. You deserve better," the NFLPA's Smith said. "I am truly sorry. The players are sorry. Our players -- YOUR players -- left everything they had at the table.
The NFL struck a similar tone in its statement confirming the lockout.
"Our message to the fans is this: We know that you are not interested in any disruption to your enjoyment of the NFL. We know that you want football. You will have football. This will be resolved," the league said.
"We have great respect for the fans," the statement said. "We have great respect for our players. We have great respect for the game and the tradition of the NFL. We will do everything that we reasonably can to ensure that everyone's attention returns to the football field as soon as possible."
It's anybody's guess on how long "as soon as possible" will actually be.