Yet they totally miscalculated everything that ultimately mattered. They asked: Which side will ultimately give up? Wrong question. Neither side ever did. A U.S. District Court judge, Sonia Sotomayor, who was appointed by a business-friendly, baseball-loving President George H. W. Bush, issued a preliminary injunction against Major League Baseball in 1995 that, essentially, ended the strike and gave the players a Pyrrhic victory.
No owner, not one, ever dreamed of that last act. Some muttered, “What does she know about baseball?” Plenty, it turned out. And she’s now on the Supreme Court.
The players got up, bleeding, and agreed among themselves: “If that’s a victory, then let’s never have another one.”
For the last 24 years, the NFL has had labor peace. But part of the reason is that retired NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the late union boss Gene Upshaw remembered the strikes of 1982 and 1987. They remembered “replacement players.” But they’re not around anymore.
The NFL’s reputation, one that’s well earned, is that it is generally smarter at marketing its product, at controlling its players and at avoiding disasters than baseball. If that’s still true, then this week’s developments may lead to serious progress. We can hope. If they mess up, we can mock.
Football is flying high right now. So was baseball in 1994. Here’s what the NFL should take away from the history of labor conflicts in pro sports, especially baseball’s disaster:
Both sides always think they know what’s going to happen because they, or their hirelings are so smart. But they don’t. They’re all guessing.
Both sides think they’ll win because they truly believe they are right. But that’s irrelevant because, usually, they’re both just rationalizing greed.
Finally, and perhaps worst, both sides think that they can foresee the worst-case scenario that may afflict their sport if they are somehow wrong. “Manageable,” they say. But they’re wrong. History doesn’t play fair. Bad decisions create their own chain reactions.
The NFL and its union don’t have to flirt with these enormous risks. Instead, they can use this window of opportunity to divide up $9 billion.
That sounds like such an easy obvious choice. But it seldom is.