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David Madland

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Workaday Fans Can Learn From The NFL Lockout

Posted: 07/19/11 12:53 PM ET

The NFL lockout, and reports that a deal to end it is near, may seem relevant only to the future of your Sunday afternoons. But NFL players are fighting to receive the same basic benefits that most workers want and need. The players want an equitable share of the economic gains they help create. And they need to increase the security of their healthcare in retirement -- a particular worry in a career that often leads to expensive health problems. Reasonable pay for one's labor and secure health care are things all Americans need to have a fair shot at negotiating for, which is why the NFL players' dispute with their employers is not just about wealthy football players and greedy owners. The ability to join a union and the enforcement of laws protecting workers should not only be for those who have the capacity to hire high-powered attorneys.

In today's lackluster economy with so few other jobs available, NFL owners, like most employers, are in a strong position to demand concessions from their workers. NFL owners also represent some of the wealthiest individuals and families in the country, which allows them to ride out any potential short-term losses they may suffer from the lockout. What's more, the owners have signed TV deals that appear to pay them regardless of whether games occur.

The players are in a strong position as well, in part by virtue of their own fame and public standing but also because of the law and their union. They, too, have adequate leverage to make for real negotiations that can benefit both sides.

But not all the players are household names like Hines Ward and Drew Brees. The vast majority are no-names whose professional careers are shorter that their college ones. Playing careers in the NFL average three-and-a-half years. The minimum salary in 2010 was $315,000 -- a very good salary but not one that can set a person up for a lifetime of leisure.

Take Brian Schaefering, a Cleveland Browns defensive lineman profiled in an ESPN article, who went undrafted in 2008, climbed his way to the practice squad in '09, and then started for the Browns last season. He made $395,000 last season, but lives in a rented house, supports a wife and three kids, and says he'd be willing to take any other job to help support his family during the lockout.

Then there's the need for long-term health care coverage. Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth expressed the obvious when he said "it's pretty tough to get health insurance after you've played six, eight, 10 years in the league."

Joining together in a union gives these players far greater power than they would have as individuals, enabling them to collectively bargain as a group over wages, benefits and working conditions. Wages, including for the lowest-paid players, have gone up significantly, with the minimum NFL player salary increasing by 13 percent between 2006, the start of the most recent collective bargaining agreement, and 2009, the last full season under that agreement. In contrast, during this same period average wages for all Americans grew by only 4 percent. Unionized players were also able to set up a lockout fund to help soften the financial blow of the lockout, a safety net that many struggling families would covet.

And when collective bargaining hasn't been able to achieve player goals, they have been able to rely on the law -- and have had the resources to make sure it is enforced or at least a credible threat that spurs owners towards serious negotiations. Players argue that the owners' lockout is an anti-competitive action that denies them the ability to market their services and thus violates antitrust laws. A lower court agreed with the players and granted an injunction to end the lockout, though an appeals court sided with the owners and allowed the lockout to continue..

On March 11, players chose to decertify their union to file the antitrust suit -- a seemingly counterintuitive step but one that works because the law gives workers -- but not owners -- the right to choose whether a union or individual representation bests serve their interests, and to switch freely between the two. This right is best expressed in an amicus brief filed by the Sports Fan Coalition, a national nonprofit fighting to give sports fans a voice on public policy issues.

These two rights -- to join a union and to rely on the law -- give NFL players a fair shot at economic success, helping to create some millionaires, to be sure, but also creating many more middle class families like the Schaeferings in Cleveland. All American workers deserve these same protections. Without them, our middle class withers away. In order for the economy work properly again, all workers -- not just football players -- need to have these basic protections.