Competition

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal entitled [“Football’s Future If the Players Win”][1]. In it, Goodell lays out his vision of what the NFL will look like if the players win the Brady vs. NFL case currently wending it’s way through the court system.

Though I’m not an attorney, I’ve read enough informed opinion believe that the players would probably win the Brady case if it ever came in front of a judge. I also believe that the case won’t come in front of a judge, because the NFL owners and players will reach a collective bargaining agreement before the case reaches trial next year.

However, let’s say that I’m wrong, the case does go in front of a judge, and the players win. Let’s look at this doomsday scenario, as Goodell describes it:

In other words, the NFL landscape would be a lot different than what we know and love. Sounds scary.

Goodell’s editorial is designed to provoke fear in fans, thereby garnering public support. However, while Goodell is right that there wouldn’t be any league-wide minimums, guarantees, workout limits, etc.*, that doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be any minimum salaries, guarantees, workout limits, etc.

*The reason these things wouldn’t exist is because they are probably illegal if there is no collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the NFLPA (or whatever union takes the NFLPA’s place). Whether or not they are actually illegal is one of the things being decided in the Brady case.

Instead of league-wide rules, each individual team would be forced to come up with their own formal or informal policies on these issues. This would be a major headache.

Under the “old system”, teams competing for free agents really had just a few ways to differentiate themselves: salary, bonuses, facilities, location, coaching staff, potential playing time, and teammates. Everything else was identical between teams, thanks to the collective bargaining agreement.

If there is no collective bargaining agreement, then teams can use virtually everything as a bargaining chip: the above factors plus things like health care program, retirement program, private transportation, housing for families and/or mistresses, educational programs, cell phone allowance, percent of concessions, and a million other things that I haven’t thought of.

The rules, regulations, and player benefits that Goodell describes wouldn’t go away, they would just vary by team. Again, this is a headache, but it’s a headache that virtually every private employer in the country has to deal with. Welcome to reality, NFL.

The old saw about the NFL is that the league has succeeded because it’s taken a bunch of capitalist millionaires and billionaires and made them behave like socialists. If the players win, then the socialist system in the NFL would be replaced by a competitive market in which the teams jockey to sign players. Teams would use all of the bargaining chips available: if a team couldn’t pay a high salary, they would have to get creative to try to sign players.

A truly free market for players is exactly what Goodell and the owners fear: it would be more complex, more expensive, and less predictable than the collectively bargained market. Football wouldn’t go away: teams would find a way to compete. Winning in football is the product of smarts, skill, and luck, and while money can help to cover for a lack of smarts, skill, or luck, money alone isn’t enough. Goodell’s fear mongering aside, teams would find a way, just like they do in baseball.

However, football would be changed in complex and unpredictable ways that would probably make the NFL a more difficult business. If the owners and/or the players wish to avoid the unknown consequences of the change, then I’d suggest they get back to the bargaining table. The players have long stated that they just wanted the status quo. It’s up to the owners to convince them otherwise.

[1]: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704132204576285090526726626.html