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Roger I. Abrams

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The Parties to the NFL Negotiations Have Run Out the Clock

Posted: 07/25/11 12:03 PM ET

The NFL owners and the NFL Players Association have finally decided to play "Let's Make a Deal!" That is not surprising, considering the amount of money that would have been squandered had the parties not reached an agreement. I had told my friends not to worry about the NFL season until about mid-July. That was when then "NFL clock" would run out and some meaningful games might be in jeopardy. Collective bargaining is extremely difficult in the absence of a clear deadline which, if missed, imposes a cost of disagreement on both sides. That was not going to happen until about now.

Both sides in these negotiations were represented by talented representatives, and they knew exactly when they needed to make a deal. Unlike the dangerous federal budget default negotiations, there was no ideology involved in this dispute, no future election prospects, just plain old money -- who gets what, how much and when.

The parties reached an agreement just in time to give us the NFL exhibition season, the least palatable appetizer on the menu. We will get our usual "taste" of real NFL football for the first three pre-season games -- the fourth game usually involves real NFL players. I guess that is a small price to pay for knowing the 2011-12 season is on.

The NFL-NFLPA deal shows that collective bargaining works as a method of resolving workplace disputes, at least in situations where the employers are filthy rich and the business is growing. It can be a very frustrating process both for participants and observers. Collective bargaining takes time and enormous patience, but in the end an agreement may forge a partnership between those who produce the entertainment and the talent who are the entertainers. That seems to have happened in baseball after eight straight work stoppages that almost killed the National Game, but we shall see how stable that cooperative relationship is after the current collective bargaining agreement expires later this year.

The part of the NFL deal that creates a rookie wage scale is a brilliant piece of self-dealing on the part of both the Players Association and the owners. The best of the rookies, as a result of hardnosed negotiating by their agents, had been taking increasing bites out of the pie which was limited in size by a hard team salary cap. Now the extra money -- and there will be cash around based upon this settlement -- will go to those men who have proven their value on the field. As usual, no one seems to have given adequate attention to the needs of the retirees, but they -- like the unsigned rookies -- are not members of the union.

For sports law professors, these have really been the best of times. We have been inundated with questions from the media about the legal games the parties have been playing. No one understands the Norris-LaGuardia Act -- including apparently the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit -- and the only ones around to ask about the intricacies of federal law were those of us who teach the subject in our Sports Law courses. Add to the mix the mysteries of labor law decertification and the inscrutable labor law exemption to the antitrust laws, and it has been a bonanza "law season." Most retailers do most of their business around Christmas time. These past few months have been Christmas time for Sports Law professors.

Genuine sports fans, of course, should care little about these legal issues. They just want the games to go on as scheduled. Who really cares who wins at the bargaining table or in court as long as there are three games scheduled every Sunday and one on Monday night! (I know I am leaving out the special Thursday edition of Monday night football and the NFL Network's games, but there can be too much even of a good thing.)

For those who will miss the business-side of sports, we still have the NBA lockout to kick around, and we will have it for some period of time. This was always going to be a more difficult dispute to resolve through collective bargaining because, unlike the NFL owners, the NBA owners claim to be losing money hand-over-fist. (If that is true, why would new owners buy into such a lousy business? This is one of those unanswerable questions I always pose to my students.)

Although not quite as interesting as the two lockouts, we should not forget about the Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens criminal trials. Bonds may already be old news, except when it comes to whether the home run champion will ever be voted into the Hall of Fame. (My best guess is that he will not, at least until a "decent interval of time" has passed.) The Clemens case was a real shocker. The misconduct by the prosecution was almost as serious as taking human growth hormone. I don't think the prosecution deliberately used evidence the court had already ruled inadmissible. It was likely just a slip up, something that happens at trial. We will have to wait until September to see whether there will be a sequel in the Clemens saga, but the whole issue of performance enhancing drugs has run its course -- except, of course, if the Tour de France explodes again into a festival of pharmaceuticals. I sure hope Cadel Evans tests clean.