There has been a lot of discussion the past few months on how the NFL labor dispute may impact the college football season in 2011 and the decision of several college players regarding whether or not they should enter the NFL Draft. Now, I don't claim to be a labor lawyer, and obviously I'm not privy to the specific negotiations or internal opinions for either the NFL or the NFLPA. I will say, though, that I follow the NFL pretty closely and that I have taken a couple of labor law classes before, so to that end I'll chime in with my two cents on the subject:
First and foremost, I think we should probably dismiss most of the rhetoric by both sides, but particularly by the NFLPA, of a pending lockout. Yes the "internal deadline" set by the NFLPA for reaching a new CBA has passed, but even they admit that they have no intention to abandon negotiations, so that's largely meaningless. As is DeMaurice Smith's proclamation that, on a scale of 1-10, the likelihood of a lockout is a "14." Any labor negotiation features a lot of rhetoric along these lines, even if an agreement will likely come to pass, and most of this talk should not be taken at face value.
Much has also been made of the recent declaration by the NFLPA urging its members to save their final three game checks, but in actuality this is really not news, the NFLPA has been urging its members to save money for a potential lockout for over a year now. Moreover, the concept of a strike fund is as old as labor unions themselves, every labor union known to man makes use of them, and they are just as much of a piece of the labor union toolbox as are strikes and picket lines. This latest "news" is largely much about nothing.
Heated rhetoric notwithstanding, the harsh truth of the matter is that players cannot afford a strike. True, incomes for NFL players have grown exponentially in recent decades and are now higher than ever, but thanks to ridiculous amounts of reckless and unsustainable spending by NFL players -- on everything from exotic cars to opulent nightlife to luxury homes to useless amenities to child support payments -- more and more players in effect find themselves flat broke even while bringing home millions per year. Yes they have incredibly high incomes, but they are also leveraged to the hilt in debt. It is this reason why, as Sports Illustrated reported last year, a whopping 78 percent of former NFL players are either bankrupt or in severe financial distress within two years of retirement. The harsh truth of the matter for NFL players is that the average player can probably afford to miss game checks about as much as a single mother working for a glorified minimum wage can afford to miss pay checks.
And owners, despite their billion dollar portfolios, are really in the same boat too. Due to the recession, the value of NFL franchises has fallen by over one billion dollars the past year, the first decline ever recorded in modern NFL history with two-thirds of all franchises losing value. The recession has also hit owners hard in terms of income and personal wealth, with much of their fortunes being tied directly to consumer spending and the stock market, both of which have seen marked declines in the past couple of years. Moreover, many NFL owners also have to make massive debt payments to finance the obligations that they took on to build their new state-of-the-art stadiums, and obviously those payments cannot be made if their revenue streams dry up in the face of a work stoppage.
I say all of that to say this: Neither the players or the owners can really afford a work stoppage, and despite all of the heated rhetoric to the contrary, an agreement will probably be reached in the coming months and there will be no work stoppage. Having established that point, people who view a lockout as an inevitability are really putting the cart before the horse.
In fact, despite a few people running full speed towards the ledge, the NFL and the NFLPA agreed yesterday to extend the deadline for players to file a collusion case, a telling sign that both sides do not feel the acrimony to be near what is publicly indicated and an indicator that the NFLPA is actually pretty comfortable with the progress being made in labor talks. For what it is worth, quite a few people think this will come to pass with a new labor agreement reached in the relatively near future while avoiding any significant work stoppage.
And, in reality, even if the NFL owners do choose a lockout, there will still not likely be a work stoppage. If that comes to pass, the NFLPA will then choose to decertify and file an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. In the meantime, while the lawsuit is ongoing, football will continue without a CBA in place, just like it did in 2010. Remember, the NFLPA decertified in 1987 and did not reconstitute itself as a labor union or enter into a new CBA until 1993, but nevertheless football remained.
One way or the other, the likelihood of any work stoppage, much less one that lasts for any significant period of time, is seemingly very low. If nothing else, economic realities for both sides likely negates that as a legitimate possibility.
What does all of this mean for rising seniors considering whether or not they should leave college early and enter the 2011 NFL Draft? I think that in the aggregate, the current uncertainty will probably not make any real impact on the decision of any informed prospect. The prospect of a potential work stoppage probably has little impact because there is unlikely to be a work stoppage, and I imagine most informed prospects will understand that by mid-January, if they don't already.
Moreover, college players must officially declare for the NFL Draft by January 15th, long before any work stoppage would occur. Even if there is a work stoppage further on down the road, those players will not simply return to their respective colleges. They will sign with agents almost immediately after declaring, taking large amounts of benefits in the process, and that will be that. The NCAA is not going to suddenly allow all of these players to come back in, say, July and play their senior seasons if a work stoppage comes to pass in the NFL. Players who leave early will be gone for good, end of story.
In the end, the deadline will probably come and go much like it always does. The obvious no-brainer candidates for early entrance -- Mark Ingram, Cam Newton, Nick Fairley, Patrick Peterson, etc. -- will leave early, as will several other highly-touted draft prospects. There will be a few headscratcher declarations (see Jevan Snead), and a couple of highly-touted draft prospects who will elect to return for their senior season.
Admittedly, the NFL labor dispute is an interesting story to follow, and obviously the ramifications stemming from it could have a major impact on every facet of the professional game. And, in fact, some possible portions of a new CBA -- a rookie salary scale, for example -- could eventually have a major impact on the college game. But for college football in 2011, despite all of the hot air and spilled ink talking of doomsday scenarios, I have a hard time seeing the labor dispute having any significant impact on the upcoming season.