THE BLOG
09/28/2010 11:32 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Baseball's Armageddon

Tonight's debut of Ken Burns' The Tenth Inning comes at the right time for the Nation's sports fans. He begins with a poignant reminder that sports are a business, not just a pleasant pastime for summer nights and fall weekends. The 1994-95 baseball strike can be blamed on greedy players and owners, but mostly it was the inevitable result of decades of business turmoil and personality conflicts in the sport. Now as we face the potential of work stoppages in football and basketball, it is important to remember why collective bargaining did not work in baseball on that occasion and why the strike was necessary.

Major League owners had a real problem believing that after a century of subservience their employees would organize into a union and stand strong against economic intimidation. That was the reason why from the early 1970s until 1994 there had been eight disruptions in the National Game. Whether the precise mechanism was a strike or a lockout, the sport was on rocky terrain because the owners simply could not appreciate the solidarity of the players. That does not mean the players were correct either in their demands or their tactics, but work stoppages in any industry can result from a fundamental misjudgment of your opponent.

By 1975, the MLB Players Association had achieved its primary goal of free agency through labor arbitration, a decision I have criticized as unsupported by the facts. Owners proceeded to drive up player salaries by competing against one another for the services of the newly freed players. They then tried to restrain themselves by colluding, only to run into three arbitration decisions and a $280 million payout to the players. Finally, by the early 1990s the owners knew they had to take a stand or forever lose their privileged place in the business.

The owners fired their commissioner and appointed one of their own to marshal their economic resources. The union blustered as usual, set a strike date, and called a strike in August 1994, expecting the owners to cave as they had so many times before. This time, however, the owners were resolute. This was the stand they needed to take, and it would have succeeded were it not for the union's brilliant play before the Labor Board and in federal court. Then Judge, now Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor should be credited in the official history of baseball with a "save." Her decision undermined the owners' legal position and the union offered to end its strike. The 1995 season commenced only a few days late, as the parties slowly began the process of reconciliation. The result has been 15 years of labor peace.

The 1994-95 strike was necessary as a way to clear away the dysfunctional way the parties had related to one another since the late 1960s. It was the beginning of a mature labor relationship. The business still had problems, the steroid scandal as the prime example, but the owners no longer could ignore the fact that the union was a full partner in their multi-billion dollar business.

Yesterday, one of my Torts students came in to see me with a "non-Torts" question. He wanted to know whether there was going to be a football strike next season. I told him I didn't think so, that the parties may have some difficult bargaining ahead, but there was too much at stake to allow a disruption in play. Each side has new leadership and that may raise some concerns, but there did not seem at this stage to be enough in controversy to drive the parties over the edge. Neither side at this point wants to be anything other than a fierce advocate for its position, but real bargaining has yet to begin.

Football today differs from baseball in 1994 because of the importance of the national television contracts. The networks fund the game on the gridiron and fill the pockets of the owners and players. They cannot allow a disruption, and they will be heard in the mix. There certainly won't be a strike over whether the season goes to 18 games or whether there will be a rookie salary scale. Admittedly, football has a history of labor disruptions, but it has been strike-free for over 20 years. That does not mean a settlement will be swift and sure, but the baseball experience of 1994-95 was unique and will not set the pattern.

Enjoy Ken Burns' retelling of a history many of us lived through, but don't see it as a prediction of Armageddon in football. No one benefits from a strike or a lockout, and I do not see it happening again soon.