Your NFL Questions, Answered; George Atallah on the Lockout and Other Pressing Matters

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Last week, we solicited your questions for George Atallah, the assistant executive director of external affairs for the?N.F.L. Players Association. You responded with typical vigor, and Atallah took the bait, answering the vast majority of your questions. Thanks to him and all of you. Here are his responses:

First, special thanks to Superfreaks Dubner and Levitt for asking me to come back and answer some of your NFL questions. No, Stephen, I couldn’t help you with a Steelers victory on Sunday, but I hope you don’t hold that against me. I did my best to answer every question as candidly as possible. There are 21 days to go until a lockout and I’m stuck with a tissue box and all kinds of medicine trying to get over a Super Bowl cold. Let’s get to the questions so I can go back to sleep and get better.

Q.

Will the players ask for extended health benefits? -VB in NV

A.

Yes. Currently, it takes three years [of NFL service] to get five years of post-career healthcare. Given the dangers and risks of the game, it is important that we work to improve this. We can’t be in a situation where, five or ten years from now, we see former NFL players with similar or worse conditions than some former players live with now. We are learning a lot more about the risks and long-term impact on the human body of playing football. In a game where players don’t have guaranteed contracts and the average career is close to 3.5 years, this is a real concern for us. Now you know why players have been so adamant about not playing 18 games.

Q.

There has been a lot of talk about a salary structuring for rookies. Why would the NFL or the NFLPA even hesitate on limiting the amount of money rookies can make? It seems beneficial to both sides (more money for proven players and no risk of getting stuck with a JaMarcus Russell). Am I missing a representative for future players? -Schantz

A.

I sound like an economist when I say this, but why would you blame the players for the fact that the NFL is an uber-successful $9 billion business? If anything, their performance on the field and their passion for the game is the reason people watch. The market bears salaries because it can. Also, remember that not a single player writes a check to another player. The owner ultimately writes the check and can pay a player whatever he can or wants. Finally, the percentage of money that goes to rookies since 1994 has actually gone down, not up. In spite of all this, the NFLPA proposed something to address this issue called the Proven Performance Plan. Under this plan, money would be shifted away from high, “unproven” first-round picks and towards veterans and former players. Finally, we proposed that rookies have the chance to make it to free agency faster by making contracts either three or four years. The owners have said no to this plan. What’s worse, whenever the owners or the NFL talk about a rookie cap, they never even mention that we made a reasonable proposal to address the issue. The players are not going to agree to what amounts to a veteran wage scale, which is essentially what owners have proposed.

Q.

The owners seem to be fine with a lockout next season if they don’t get their conditions. If this is true, what leverage (if any) do the players have to force a collective bargaining agreement? What are the owners’ incentives? -Andrew Ward

A.

It’s unfortunate that this is the reality of our situation. Players continue to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Our best leverage right now is to continue to negotiate as hard as possible. There is some legal recourse that the players can take if in fact there is a lockout, but none of that is a sure thing. Other real leverage, frankly, comes from fans (consumers) across the country understanding the facts about this situation. Enraging and threatening your employees is one thing, alienating your consumer base is an entirely different matter.

Q.

Have the players made plans to start “a league of their own”? No one pays $150 per game to see Jerry Joan or Danny Snide. No one watches TV to see those two men.

The players hold the power. Why not combine with the cities to field teams, using city-owned vacant stadiums like RFK in Washington and the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville? Who owns the Rose Bowl? I’m sure you could pack 100,000 fans in there every week. Why not two teams or even four teams in L.A. the first year? For TV, use Univision or some other major network outside the current TV oligopoly.

If the players haven’t made plans or are too weak to break free of the system of serfdom they currently have, it’s their own fault. This should be a golden opportunity for the players to control their fate. -Michael Radosevich

A.

A new CBA with the NFL is obviously what we want. Maybe you know someone that can help with your proposal? Hmm…

Q.

It’s my understanding that the replacement players in ’87 worked out well for the owners because in a face-masked league, the fans didn’t care who was playing as long as the games were played. With the explosion and popularity of today’s 24-hour sports news, Twitter and fantasy football, more players have become more recognizable (though still a significantly smaller percentage than NBA and MLB). Nevertheless, do you think this gives players some leverage that was demonstrated to be non-existent after 1987? -Phil

A.

I think in today’s NFL, players have far more outlets to engage directly with fans. There is more awareness now among players and an understanding that their individual brand matters. I don’t know how that translates to leverage, but social media has certainly helped deliver our message directly to fans. We had a very successful #letusplay day on Twitter a few weeks ago, for example. As a result of player engagement, it became a worldwide trending topic. I remind players whenever I can that they have far more influence than they ever imagined. In a CBA context, it’s been helpful to get facts out in the public realm directly to fans. In a broader context, they have a unique ability and platform to use social media for good.

Q.

1) Do you agree with the premise that the non-guaranteed contracts and hard salary cap strongly contribute to making the NFL the most competitively balanced professional sports league?

2) If so, what is your philosophy in representing the players while maintaining the parity that makes the NFL so popular? Would you focus more on signing bonuses and less on game checks or vice versa? Less guaranteed money to the top ten draft picks and more guaranteed money to veterans? What do you seek for players whose average career is three years? Two-year guaranteed contracts and the remainder non-guaranteed? -Aaron

A.

For your first question: there is no hard cap in the NFL. And I think a number of factors contribute to the competitiveness and they all have to fit together. Salary cap, salary minimums, revenue sharing, all happen on the business side and allowed for two small market teams — Green Bay and Pittsburgh — to play in the Super Bowl. As far as guaranteed contracts go, it’s certainly something players are interested in. I’ve been around NFL players for two years now, and not a single one I talked to would play with any less intensity if he had a guaranteed contract. That’s a fact.

Q.

Since the Packers are publicly owned, and their finances a matter of public record, has the NFLPA been able to make use of that data to counter any questionable accounting practices by the League/Ownership? -Zach

A.

Green Bay’s financials are only 1/32nd of the information available. In the same way I don’t accept the NFL using the Packers’ financials to make a case, I know players can’t make an accurate assessment based only on that. Especially when owners are asking players to give back an additional $1 billion a year of a future agreement. I can tell you that opening the books certainly didn’t hurt them in winning the Super Bowl.

Q.

How can fans get involved to ensure we save next season? -Brian Frederick

A.

Trick question. Do an internet search for your name and find out. The NFL players have their own online petition where fans can block the lockout, but I’m not going to use this forum for free advertising.

Q.

If there is no season next year, will there still be a 2012 NFL draft? How will the order be determined? Will it be the same as this year’s? -Lawrence

A.

It is in the current CBA that the 2012 NFL draft will occur at the end of April. I don’t know what will happen if there is a lockout and if the CBA expires on March 4, but think about this: if the NFL draft happens in a lockout, teams can own a player’s rights without having to negotiate a contract or pay players. It’s a restriction of trade of the worst kind. This is not a good scenario.

Q.

Given how vehement the players seem to be about no 18-game seasons, and how indifferent the fans are, do you think it’s possible that Goodell and the owners are playing it up in order to make it a “major concession” later down the line, so it appears they are operating in good faith? From what I’ve heard, preseason games are serious revenue generators for teams, because they get to control the local broadcast rights, force season-ticket holders to but tickets at face value, and get more in concessions. Combine this with all the talk of concussions, pre-concussive hits, “holes in the brain,” and the failure to take care of retirees, I can’t imagine the NFL actually thinks an 18-game season would be anything but a money loser and PR disaster. -M. Steve

A.

Commissioner Goodell had to answer this question during his press conference at the Super Bowl. I don’t know what they are thinking, nor would I pretend to speculate on that, but you have pretty much laid out the players’ concerns in your question.

Q.

One measure of the worsening stratification in our country is the growing disparity between CEO pay and average worker pay, which presently is at 350-to-1 (in the 60s it was @ 40-to-1). I would love to see an owner-to-average-NFL salary ratio to further unmask this myth about owner “fixing.” Also, does your $1 billion in “expense credits” the owners take count all of the fan/taxpayer subsidies for stadiums that the owners also pocket? -frankenduf

A.

The $1 billion expense credit does not take into account any fan or taxpayer subsidies. I don’t know the exact disparity between owner and player pay and that’s because … wait for it … players don’t receive audited financial statements.

Q.

Why doesn’t a lockout invalidate player contracts, since they aren’t getting paid?

Will a significant number of players drafted late, say round 5 and later, and rookie free agents, prefer a modest salary from the UFL over the unknown nature of the NFL in 2011? -Randy

A.

All contracts are void in a lockout. Players are free to look for jobs elsewhere.

Q.

So as I understand it, owners claim that the current deal does not give them an incentive to develop revenue streams.

I imagine a solution to the core revenue-sharing issue in the current CBA negotiations where players continue to receive their current percentage of total revenue up to a cap level which is above their current pay level. The cap could represent a fixed-dollar maximum for their share of revenue, or after the cap they could continue getting a smaller percentage of total revenue.

Such an agreement could give ownership the incentive that they claim they need, while still giving a pay raise to players.

If ownership can find ways to increase TR without imposing unreasonable burdens on players, perhaps a deal acceptable to both sides could be reached.

I think there is a lot that could be done to increase TR through creative solutions.

Could something like this work, at least for the upcoming season? -Roger G

A.

The current deal brought them a $2 billion renewal of Monday Night Football with ESPN. I understand that this is not necessarily a new revenue stream, but it’s not like the game is hurting. In the players’ opinion, the current CBA is the foundation for the tremendous growth the sport has experienced. The best way to seek out new revenue streams is to work with players as partners. There’s a lot we can do besides giving back $1 billion in the players’ portion of revenues without justification.

Q.

The most serious problem the NFL faces: it’s the viability of the game the way it has been played for many years. American football is probably the most dangerous team sport played in this country. It probably makes boxing look like swimming in a kiddie pool.

It has been documented that all the head injuries leads to a significant incidence of dementia.

This must be dealt with! The reasons players don’t talk much about it is: where else can they obtain such great compensation? And, usually if the dementia arrives it’s many years later.

Just like teens who drive irresponsibly – when you’re young?there is the delusion that you’re immortal. -David Chowes, New York City

A.

The players have started to deal with it in a real way. The NFLPA has formed the Mackey-White Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, named after John Mackey and Reggie White. The risks are real. The more information we can gather about the impact of the game on the men that play it, the better position we can be in to make decisions that will make it safer.

Q.

If a rookie wage scale is implemented in the new CBA, as many expect, will it go into effect for the 2012 or 2013 draft? Is there a preexisting grandfather clause for such an event? -Craig A.


Do rookie wage scales in general (regardless of sport) violate antitrust laws and affect fair market negotiations? -Craig A.


What does the players union think about a set pay schedule for rookies like the NBA?

(As I understand it, the union represents current employees. By cutting rookie salaries by significant margins, this would obviously free up money for current players. Or allow current players’ salaries to remain stable while owners obtain additional funds. By my account, the players union doesn’t fully understand who they represent. They should be willing to throw future employees under the bus as these individuals aren’t currently represented or paying dues. The players union could make a slippery slope argument, but this is non-sensical. I firmly believe that by greatly reducing rookie salaries and applying a sliding scale like the NBA, both owners and players would be happy with neither parties being hurt. Yes, future rookies would be hurt, but they are not involved in this negotiation process.) -chris markl

A.

See my answer to #3. The NFLPA represents the interests of players past, present and future. We are proud to advocate for all of them.

Q.

In the end, don’t the owners hold all of the cards in a lockout scenario?

Basically doesn’t it all come down to cash flow?

The way the TV contract is written, the NFL will continue to receive payment for the duration of the network contracts even if there is no football. My understanding is that the owners would have to re-pay the TV networks once the lockout is finished, but they would continue to receive payment up front. Is this correct?

By contrast, if no football is played, the players will not be paid. You hear stories about players like Cormartie that have eight small children and are living paycheck to paycheck even with multi-million dollar contracts.

I just don’t see how the NFLPA can hold out as long as the owners. -jarvis

A.

Yes, they will receive payment even in the event of a lockout from the television networks. And yes, we believe that these contracts were negotiated to gain leverage over the players in negotiations. We are currently challenging these contracts in Minnesota state court and a summary of our argument is here.?We’ve been telling the players to prepare for a long time now. The NFLPA has taken steps to help players prepare, but individual responsibility trumps all. That has been our message to the players, and we believe it has resonated.

Q.

When asked about the CBA, many players seem to respond with something along the lines of “Let’s just get a deal done.” The average NFL player’s career is about three years. If there’s a lockout, I’m assuming that the players won’t get paid for that year. If they do not, do you think that the average player would rather accept the 18-game schedule with potentially inadequate healthcare while getting paid as opposed to losing out on one of those three years of making an NFL income? (Millions of dollars + health problems versus better health + much less money.)

Because stadiums are to a large degree publicly financed, most of the costs to an owner seem to be variable. Most of them are rich anyways, so they can afford to not lose or profit from an NFL season. Therefore, they have a lot of the leverage. What leverage do the players have during negotiations other than to threaten to start a rival league? -stal

A.

The players have been candid about the fact that owners have been preparing for a lockout for three years now. Anytime one negotiating party builds significant leverage over the other, their intentions are clear.

Q.

What is the current state of the CBA negotiations? It seems like there is no movement toward a deal. Are there any hopeful signs?

(My first name and last initial are real, btw, not an impersonation of Roger Goodell.) -Roger G

A.

Hi Roger G…good to see you at the Super Bowl. Actually, we have committed to a series of negotiations over the next 20 days. I hope we can work to get something done. I won’t characterize or set any expectations about where we’ll wind up, but I can only tell you that the NFLPA and the players have been committed to getting a fair deal done quickly.

Q.

I am a fan of the NFL, the NFLPA, and I’ve been following the CBA negotiations through the news for quite some time. I am writing you because I’d like to suggest a minor shift in the communications strategy of the NFLPA, one that would draw a connection to a disturbing trend that has affected all workers/labor over the last thirty years and could accelerate support for the players, which is already gaining steam.

I’d like to suggest that the NFLPA point out that what the NFL owners seek in their 18 percent reduction in player salaries is really no different than what CEO/Owners have successfully achieved in the U.S. economy at large over the last 30 years. Despite rapidly increasing productivity, wages have remained essentially flat in the United States since 1980. Despite the fact that the average American worker has worked harder and smarter than ever before, wages have remained flat and as a result, they are sharing less and less in the benefits that they themselves are creating. Likewise, after what was arguably the most successful, profitable NFL season in history, the NFL owners are asking the players to take a pay-cut, essentially in an effort to bring the NFL more in line with the larger American business model of the last thirty years, which in part is to keep American labor costs as low as possible, regardless of whether labor gets better at its job, and then pocket the resulting profits.

Aside from pointing out the egregious disconnect between worker pay and worker productivity, I’d also suggest pointing out the corresponding ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay. In 2005, this ratio reached 411:1 by some estimates and up to 600:1 by others. Do you have estimates as to what the ratio of median NFL salary to NFL CEO pay or median salary to owner profit might be for the NFL over the last few years? My hypothesis is that over the last few years, this ratio has decreased, much to the owners chagrin. By drawing attention to this ratio, and indicating that unlike the country at large and due to the strength of the union, the NFLPA can point out that NFL labor has yet to meet the unjust fate of the American workforce at large and will continue to resist such efforts. Indeed, as the game increases in profitability and popularity, the NFLPA and its players will fight for their just compensation.

This argument has the potential to become much bigger than simply a fight between millionaire athletes and billionaire owners, and can draw attention to the egregious state of income inequality in the United States. Egypt is erupting over the opulence of the few relative to the poverty of the vast majority, and Americans underestimate the current state of inequality here, which actually exceeds that of Egypt. -Imhotep R.

A.

I would rest my case with your comments if players only knew what the financial statements for teams looked like. We don’t. By the way, the only context for our request for financial transparency is in the attempt to justify their main economic proposal.

Q.

The owners say they have provided the union with sufficient info to justify their wanting an extra billion off the top. However, I have read that they haven’t opened their books, which to me would be the best justification of all. So what exactly have the owners provided to support their claim that they need to take an extra billion off the top? -Paul

A.

Nothing the players have seen justifies an extra billion off the top. Nothing. I actually read your question again and again with a blank stare to think of something clever to respond with, but “nothing” illustrates the point best.

Q.

Could I have $100,000?

Seriously, that money would change my life forever. I’d still have to work, but I’d never worry about money again.

I don’t mean to downplay what you are doing, and I agree that the players deserve the lion’s share of the leagues money, but fans, who can’t throw out $50,000 fines for stepping out of line at work, are going to have a hard time relating to millionaires arguing with billionaires about pay raises.

I love watching the games, and the players are treated poorly. But they are compensated.

Could the players union be better served by making the occasional fan rich? Sort of like a lottery. Pick an NFL fan, and give them thousands to millions. Show that you guys are generous with your money.

Maybe have an online contest where a fan wins the salary of their favorite player for each game.

When the owners squeeze the players and the union, you can announce that the owners want to end the promotion. People will feel like the owners are squeezing them, despite never having an actual shot at the money.

PS: I should be the first winner. I’d really like the 100k! But I’d rather have Manning‘s 1 game salary for next year. -bob

A.

We can’t resolve this issue simply based on the fact there’s a lot of money involved. There are basic business principles that can’t be suspended simply because the market for NFL football is large and profitable. Financial transparency for example, is a fundamental tenet of business, especially today. The fact that the NFL impacts hundreds of thousands of jobs across America is a reality. NFL players didn’t win a lottery ticket. They worked their entire lives to do something extraordinary. Their compensation is based on the market. And a lockout is completely unjustified given the information available on the success of this marketplace.

Q.

A lockout is extremely unlikely. Players are satisfied with their salaries. This lockout is mostly between the players union and the team owners. Robert Kraft (Patriots owners) is confident a deal will be made also. There is enough revenue going into the NFL for everyone to come out a winner. -Michael

A.

I hope you’re right. The actions taken by the NFL and the NFL owners to date indicate otherwise.

Q.

Assuming the widely reported split of the expiring CBA (60 percent of revenue to the players, 40 percent to owners) is accurate, do the players feel like they are being short-changed under the deal? What percentage do they think is fair? -arjan

A.

The revenue split is actually 50-50. I wrote a letter to editors about this not too long ago, which you can read here.?What’s fair to the players is to not have a lockout next year.

Q.

With salary caps and salary floors in the old CBA system, you had a somewhat predictable expectation of player salaries. I think in 2009 the numbers were $85m and $127m, or thereabout. So you could predict players would get approximately $3.7b. Does it matter to the players’ union if that money is delivered in guaranteed or non-guaranteed contracts? It has always struck me that, with a cap, guaranteed contracts do not extract more money from owners, but rather affect allocation of that money between players. And I fear guaranteed contracts in the NFL will result in more Albert Haynesworth (circa 2010) problems. -TBallgame

A.

Guaranteed contracts are a concern that has been raised by NFL players for a long time. I’d have to do an analysis to go inside the numbers to look into your comments, but given the risks players take and the brevity of their careers, you can be sure that we have raised the issue. To reiterate, not a single player I know would play with any less intensity or hunger if his contract were guaranteed.

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  1. John T says:

    I had to stop reading after his answer to the rookie salary question began with “I sound like an economist when I say this, but why would you blame the players for the fact that the NFL is an uber-successful $9 billion business? If anything, their performance on the field and their passion for the game is the reason people watch. The market bears salaries because it can.”

    First, no, you don’t sound like an economist, you sound like a paid mouthpiece for the players, as “the fact that the NFL is an uber-successful $9 billion business” has nothing to do with the question of why the players wouldn’t want to slice up that $9 billion pie a little differently.

    Second, “If anything, their performance on the field and their passion for the game is the reason people watch” is true, I’d say, but again has nothing to do with rookies, and one could easily make the argument that rookies contribue very little to the “reason people watch” – if there was no draft this year, I’m pretty sure I’d still watch.

    Third, “The market bears salaries because it can.” Um, we’re talking about a limited entry league of 32 teams, which allocates new players not by market but by draft, which greatly restricts player movement among the individual 32 teams, and which imposes an overall cap on the amount of money available to each team to pay its players. Pray tell, how again does “the market” come into play here?

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  2. Joe D. says:

    I would love it if you did a blog post about the opposite side of the argument. I want to use this collective bargaining agreement as a simulation lesson plan to teach labor in the classroom and it is difficult to find statistics on the owner’s side of the conversation. Can anyone point me to a website that might have something like that. Thanks.

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  3. M. Steve says:

    Thank you very much for answering my question, even it it was rather diplomatic. I understand not wanting to tip your hand in public.

    I will only say that my hypothesis that the 18-game season is simply a negotiating tactic has seems to gain a little steam in the press the past couple weeks. I’ve seen in on Sportscenter quite a few times, and read similar thoughts on ESPN.com. Hopefully this becoming public opinion will weaken the owner’s position enough to avoid a lockout.

    As to 1987 comparisons, this sure as hell ain’t 1987. I don’t know a single person who would watch UFL scrubs play “NFL” games. This is the Fantasy Football era, and the owners have to know it.

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  4. Mantonat says:

    The phrases “individual responsibility trumps all” and “collective bargaining” seem almost mutually exclusive.

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  5. Carlos K says:

    He states twice: “not a single player I know would play with any less intensity or hunger if his contract were guaranteed.”

    I don’t buy it. I believe the players say that and believe it. However, if you are on the fence with an injury but need to “prove” yourself for next year’s team, you’ll suck it up and go. If your salary is guaranteed, why risk greater injury?

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  6. bob says:

    So, what about my $100k? Did you think I was joking?

    I really appreciate the time taken. Let’s hope that no one misses football and that everyone can continue to make money.

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  7. Mike says:

    Thank you for answering these questions, As a Fan/Owner (GB), I was very interested in this column.

    I will be writing my representatives to ask what they are doing to put pressure on owners of other teams to prevent a lock out, as thousands of small businesses around out country depend on the NFL to increase income and revenue.

    Many businesses (bars/restaurants/apparel manufacturers/TeleComm firms and countless others) Depend on the marginal gains they receive during the NFL season to stay afloat.

    Congress should act to open the books of the regulated Monopoly of the NFL to its Players Union

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  8. Tg3 says:

    NASCAR, NHL, NBA, Golf et al have to be licking their chops at the opportunity that will be created when football is no longer on television between September and February.

    Football is not an excuse to sit my ass on the couch for several hours each week. I am going to do that anyway. I just need the networks to hype something as much as they do football so that I do not have to think too hard about what the NFL replacement product has become.

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