As if anyone needed a reminder about why football is the best form of entertainment around, one need not look further than yesterday's Super Bowl between the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints. Super Bowl XLIV was by all accounts one of the most entertaining Super Bowls played to date. It featured a team representing a city ravaged by one of the worst natural disasters experienced in the developed world, a quarterback fighting to solidify his legacy as potentially the best football player ever and an entire country transfixed on one of the annual marquee hallmarks of Americana, complete with appetizers, funny commercials and fanfare befitting kings.
And it's hard to think that the National Football League might have just peaked in its popularity. For not long after Bourbon Street's celebrations conclude, the NFL will have to grapple with an impending and potentially game-arresting labor dispute with its players union.
By way of background, ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon provides a fantastic summary about the current situation facing the NFL owners and players.
Unless the NFL miraculously exacts an unforeseen compromise between management and the union, the chances of a new collective bargaining agreement are dim. This will lead to a year without a cap on player compensation in 2010, followed by a lockout in 2011. The prospects of an uncapped year could upset the NFL's delicate competitive balance. Small market teams like the Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers will find it hard to compete financially with the likes of spendthrift Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder of the Washington Redskins.
A lockout would have comparably disastrous consequences. Some observers, like Wilbon, contend that owners might want a lockout to get the most attractive labor deal from the union, even though league commissioner Roger Goodell vociferously denies this.
Speculation aside, one thing is clear: The principle losers in any labor dispute are we, the average fans of professional football. We suffer when the best players for the job do not suit up on autumnal Sundays.
At first glance, it seems like the average fan's recourse is limited. Private labor disputes are strictly the domain of the actors in question -- the league and its union.
But such a characterization fails to account for the immense privilege bestowed upon the National Football League by our government. As such, the government ought to act in a way to serve the taxpayers' best interests by forcing both league management and the players union to reach a settlement and new collective bargaining agreement before the onset of the 2010 season.
The government would be more than justified in brokering such an agreement.
First, the NFL enjoys an antitrust exemption on the collusion of its thirty-two franchises in crafting league-wide contracts. Regardless of the merits, it is clear that the NFL, and all organized sports, occupy a legal gray area wherein some degree of collusion is necessary to maintain a robust competitive landscape. Still, there is precedent for its antitrust exemption to be invoked in serving the broader interests of taxpayers at large, such as Senator Arlen Spector's investigation of the New England Patriots spying accusations a few years ago.
Secondly, the NFL enjoys a near total monopsony on the market for football talent. In other words, if one wants to become a professional football player, his only real avenue is the NFL. Yes, I am aware that other professional sports and other football leagues, such as the UFL, have competitive power, but a quick look at the rosters of UFL teams belies this intuition. Monopsony power gives the NFL ownership an unfair institutional advantage when negotiating with the players union. The government can correct this imbalance.
Thirdly, and perhaps most convincingly, is the fact that the NFL routinely benefits from taxpayer intervention in the market for sports. At the college level, the NFL benefits from an expansive public education system that doubles as a recruitment tool for NFL-caliber talent, thereby subsidizing the development of the NFL's chief inputs, young players. Municipally, owners regularly petition their state and local governments for subsidies when building their venues, citing massive positive externalities for stadiums in cities. Recent research suggests that it is taxpayers who get a raw deal in stadium subsidies. Supposed economic benefits rarely materialize, and owners get to keep the fruits of taxpayer largesse. Indeed, unoccupied stadiums in 2011 does not fulfill the obligation NFL ownership has to taxpayers.
With no impending agreement in the works, the time for the government to act is now. They can force both sides to submit to a third-party arbitration panel, for instance, if an agreement is not reached by a certain date. In any case, the government has the authority to make both sides come to an agreement for the reasons stated above.
If a lockout occurs, consider that another triumph of private interests at the expense of the public writ large. We should not be ready to tolerate a stoppage of football so a group of thirty-two owners can extract even more concessions at the expense of the average fan. To do so would constitute another big NFL choke-job on the nation's grandest stage.
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