Naylor: Why pro football work stoppages almost never occur

Dave Naylor
6/2/2014 9:44:39 AM
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There's a reason there hasn't been a meaningful work stoppage in pro football for almost 27 years, and it's not because this is a sport where the players have nothing to complain about.

The very nature of the sport makes it difficult - some might say near impossible - to keep players united during a work stoppage because work stoppages are always about making sacrifices in the short term to benefit in the long. And for a great number of players in a sport with short careers and non-guaranteed contracts, there is no long term. 

But perhaps even more difficult to overcome is the fact that in football a small number of players on every team are paid far more than the rest, especially the large number of players on every team who will earn at or near the league minimum. And it is those star players, who already enjoy the biggest paydays and the most job security, who'll gain the most as the result of a successful work action.

Look at any roster in either the CFL or NFL and you'll probably be surprised to earn how many players are earning at or near the league minimum, which this NFL season will ranges between $420,000 and $645,00 for players from zero to three years of service in the league. In the CFL, that figure will go from $45,000 to $50,000 for this season based on what the parties have agreed to so far during current CBA negotiations.

Since payrolls for CFL teams aren't public, let's use an NFL team as an example to illustrate the payroll dynamics in pro football, which are similar in both leagues, albeit on a different scale.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers enters this season with an average salary of $22 million, nearly double that of anyone else on the team. Among Packers currently under contract, there are only four with an average salary of more than  $7 million season, and another four at more than $4 million. There are eight players listed at between $2 million and $4 million, and 67 whose average salary is less than $1 million, 49 of whom are due to earn less than $600,000.

The numbers in the CFL are obviously smaller but the manner in which they compare to one another is similar, with star quarterbacks earning roughly $500,000 per season while a large portion of each roster earns less than $60,000 per season.

The truth is that whatever gains are made for the players in either league usually mean the rich will get richer.

For example, the NFL will operate this season with a salary cap of $133 million dollars. But if that figure was suddenly increased to $200 million, the primary beneficiaries would be the Peyton Mannings, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady's and Richard Shermans of the world, while the leagues rank and file would essentially remain un affected.

Same thing in the Canadian Football League - where if the CFLPA were to get its wish and have the salary cap jump immediately from $4.4 million to $5.8, the benefits would go to players such Ricky Ray, Darian Durant and the rest of the players whom fans pay to see. Of course there's another dynamic in the CFL game that doesn't exist south of the border. And that's that starting Canadian players - the ones mandated by the league's quota system - also stand to benefit handsomely from any increase because of the laws of supply and demand.

But the question becomes how do you convince the great number of players earning at or near the league minimum - young American players or backup Canadians - to commit to a work stoppage when there's little or no chance many of them will benefit from it?

Standing up for a much higher minimum salary might help boost support among the rank and file, but that never seems to be the priority in either league.
And therein lies the challenge of trying to keep a union full of professional football players all on the same page during a negotiating process.

Consider that, despite having the leverage of being able to shut down the most profitable sport in North America, NFL players weren't much interested in testing the resolve of their membership by missing paycheques when the league locked out its players during the off-season three years ago.

They settled before that could happen.

In Canada, the CFLPA has made a lot of noise about being disappointed in the league's various offers this spring. But it hasn't said anything about having all of its membership on side, or being unbreakable, or being willing to miss game cheques in order to reach their goals in negotiation.

The truth is that if the CFLPA were to strike a portion of the season, a great number of players will never get that money back - even if the owners were to capitulate completely. Many would simply be out of the league before they could benefit or would be left to watch the windfalls go to star players while they continue to earn similar amounts.

All of these dynamics play to the owner's advantage. And in the CFL, where we're talking about players needing money to simply pay for the cost of living, the advantage is even greater.

Will we see a CFL players strike later this month? Perhaps while it's just training camp being missed, when no one has to make a true financial sacrifice to benefit the group for the long term.

But in a sport where the rewards of such an action are likely to wind up in the hands of a select few, expecting anything more may be asking too much.

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