Thursday, March 3, 2011

New Sports Illustrated Column: 10 Answers to 10 Big Questions on NFL Labor Crisis

I have a new SI column that answers 10 key questions about what will happen if we see decertification/lockout in the NFLPA-NFL labor dispute. Here are two of the answers:

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7) With the NFLPA decertified, could college players skip the NFL draft and sign with NFL teams?

No, at least not yet. First off, if the league, as expected, shuts down operations, it could cancel the 2011 NFL Draft, which is scheduled to take place between April 28 and 30. The NFL is unlikely to cancel the draft, however, due to language in Article XVI of the collective bargaining agreement and since teams have prepared for it and doing so would only elevate the chaos of the labor crisis. Therefore, absent a legal challenge, the draft will likely remain the exclusive process by which amateur players join the NFL.

Once the NFLPA decertifies, however, a college player or a group of college players could bring an antitrust challenge against the NFL over the draft. The lawsuit would likely argue that the draft harms them economically, and harms competition in general, since college players could earn more income and play on their preferred teams if they were free agents and not subject to the draft. If a court were sympathetic to the argument, it could issue an injunction postponing the draft until after an evaluation of the antitrust challenge.

Alternatively, star freshman or sophomore players could challenge the NFL's draft eligibility restriction that players be three years removed from high school before they are draft eligible. Without the labor exemption protecting the eligibility restriction, a court may reason that certain players are good enough to attract NFL teams before they are three years removed from high school and thus the restriction against them harms competition for players, since players "good enough" to turn pro are denied the chance.

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10) Following a lockout, can players join teams in other leagues like the United Football League, the Arena Football League or the Canadian Football League?

Yes. Players could join such leagues because their NFL contracts would be suspended and the NFLPA assures that they would continue to receive their $60,000 lockout compensation regardless of other income.

However, there would not be enough roster spots in those leagues for all NFL players. Most NFL players, moreover, would probably resist the temptation of joining a league that does not pay nearly as well as the NFL.

For example, the salary cap is about $4.25 million for each team in the CFL, whose season runs from June 30 to Nov. 27. To put that number in perspective, the salary cap for each NFL team in the last capped season -- 2009 -- was $130 million. Also, the average CFL salary is about $50,000; the average NFL salary is $1.9 million and the minimum NFL salary is $325,000 (NFL practice squad players normally earn $88,400). While $50,000 would be a good salary for many employees, it would probably seem low for someone who is exposing his body to potentially catastrophic injury on every play, particularly for someone who is accustomed to earning much more for that risk.

The lack of viable alternatives for NFL players to play professional football highlights a key difference in bargaining leverage between them and NBA players, who may also be subject to a lengthy work stoppage later this year. Some NBA players, particularly stars, would be able to recoup a substantial portion of their lost NBA income by playing in Europe, whereas few NFL players can recoup a substantial portion by playing pro football elsewhere.

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To read the other eight question/answers, click here.