The debate between governors and public sector employee unions in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states may be foremost in many politicians' minds, but the union fight that matters most to many Americans is going on in the NFL. The National Football League's owners and players have their horns locked in a battle over whether or not to extend its own collective bargaining agreement in order to avert a work stoppage.
But while both may be union conflicts, these are two very different struggles. For painfully obvious reasons, of course: Comparing a teacher's $42,000 salary with an NFL player's average $1.9 million gold mine is downright silly, for one. And the NFL owners are hardly trying to take away the players' right to strike or collectively bargain (though if that ever happened, that's a brawl I'd pay to see).
But there is one key leadership difference between the two worth examining. Whether or not sacrificing union rights is really the best way for governors to cut bloated state budgets, and whether or not the public really supports the proposed changes, the governors, at least in their effort to win concessions from the public sector unions, do have a decent argument: It helps taxpayers. Many voters, especially at a time when they're watching their own salary, benefits and rights get squeezed by the demands of the economy, have some sympathy for the governors' quest to seek concessions.
You can't really say the same about the owners. NFL owners are a billionaire lot looking to squeeze even more revenue out of what's already a very lucrative game. Why? So they can build new stadiums, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell argues. Not so they can make their ticket prices more affordable. Or sell cheaper beer.
Nor can they make the argument, as governors can, that this needs to happen because of the sorry state of NFL finances. While that has been a very real threat in the past, it's the furthest thing from the truth now. This is America's most popular sport. It reportedly has played host to 8 of the 10 highest rated shows in the history of television. ESPN's Rick Reilly put it well when he wrote Thursday that "no set of sports owners in U.S. history has known this kind of popularity, love or cash."
Indeed. With $9 billion in revenues, the NFL would be a Fortune 500 company in itself, hauling in more than mutual fund powerhouse T. Rowe Price, credit scorer Equifax, and casino owner Wynn Resorts--combined. As President Obama said Thursday, "I also think that for an industry that's making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out how to divide it up in a sensible way and be true to their fans."
Unfortunately, it isn't the fans who will decide whether or not the two sides agree to a further postponement beyond Thursday night's 24-hour extension, which will be necessary for the two sides to reach some kind of settlement. But if a settlement isn't reached soon, and the quality or amount of football is affected, it will be the fans who suffer. Winning their sympathy won't decide how this union battle ends, but it could play a big role in how willing fans are to shell out big bucks for tickets in the future at those fancy new stadiums the owners apparently so badly need.