By: Bob George/BosSports.net
March 13, 2011

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In 1987, you all saw the NFL players union exposed as weak and breakable. In 1994 and 1995, you saw the opposite in baseball.

What everyone feared in the NFL is now coming true. Following the NFLPA decertifying as a union, the NFL owners are now locking the players out of their facilities and putting the 2011 season in jeopardy. To make matters worse, players like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees plan to sue their respective teams for locking them out.

At the heart of the conflict is the division of some $9 billion in revenue, along with the possible conversion to an 18-game regular season schedule and a two-game exhibition schedule. Most of the blame here is being laid at the feet of the owners, who seem to be provoking this lockout by literally forcing the players' union to decertify. Bob Kraft wants the two sides to sit back down and hammer out an agreement and not take this to the courts. But even his own franchise centerpiece is planning on lawyering up.

If you also happen to be a connoisseur of baseball, think for a second. Would this stuff be happening in MLB? Not on your reserve clauses and salary caps.

This whole mess represents a major philosophical and fundamental difference between the two unions. In MLB, the union actually runs the league, dictates policy, reduces commissioner Bug Selig to a mere figurehead, and is literally unbreakable. On the other side, the NFLPA suffered a huge embarrassment in 1987 when replacement players played the first few games of the season, and the regular players came trickling back into the games as the dam broke, little by little.

To help fix what's wrong with the NFLPA, let's examine how the MLBPA became so powerful and why everything goes through Michael Weiner and not Selig.

There was a time when baseball players were treated rather poorly. The reserve clause bound a player to the team that first signed him, salaries were low, job security was lousy, conditions were primitive, and owners were like dictators. Players played baseball because they loved the game, and while it remains one of the most endearing and romantic elements of American sports, as a player, it was quite grueling which at times affected the quality of life in the major leagues.

Things changed in 1969 when Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood refused a trade to the Cleveland Indians, and challenged the reserve clause in the USA Supreme Court. Flood lost, and his career was sacrificed in the process. But the reserve clause eventually came crashing down in 1975 when arbitrator Peter Seitz opened baseball up to the free agent era, so in effect Flood came out a winner in the end even though Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith are the names most associated with the advent of free agency.

But a more seminal moment in baseball occurred in 1972. The players decided to unionize and named economist Marvin Miller as its head in 1966. He brought arbitration into contract negotiations, which led to Catfish Hunter being technically the first free agent in baseball history in 1974, who wound up jumping from Oakland to the Yankees. Miller later instigated Messersmith and McNally to play out their contracts and to file a grievance with Seitz. But the 1972 baseball strike, where Miller voluntarily refused to be paid his salary during the entire length of the strike, strengthened the union and forced major concessions from the owners. Strikes in 1980 and 1981 further strengthened the position of the players, and it set the stage for his successors, Donald Fehr and Weiner, to continue to wield unbelievable power in baseball.

A 1994 work stoppage during Fehr's leadership wiped out the entire postseason that year. One of the issues in this case involved the owners trying to impose a salary cap, which the players flatly refused. MLB remains the only major league sport without a salary cap. The main reason Alex Rodriguez became a Yankee and not a Red Sox is because the MLBPA refused him to take the Sox contract offer, which reduced the annual value of the existing deal he signed with Texas. Once the union said no, there was no deal.

The baseball union is also a tremendously arrogant group. When called before Congress to explain itself in the rampant usage of steroids in baseball, and the lack of adequate testing for illegal performance-enhancing drugs, their reaction was intriguing. Fehr looked Congress in the eye and basically told them that it was none of their business and why are we even here talking about this. It was a case where there was no legal basis for Congress to act, only to ask questions and investigate. Fehr had no reason to be cordial or to volunteer any important information, and he came off as if Congress was wasting his valuable time.

In 1981, during that season's baseball strike, this writer went on a sports talk show and wondered why baseball didn't use replacement players like the NFL did in 1987. I was told that any player who did such a thing and managed to stay with the club at the end of hostilities would be considered a pariah. Players like Ron Mahay and Brian Daubach proved his point.

The MLB owners were going to finally try using replacement players in 1995 after the cancellation of the 1994 postseason. Mahay and Daubach were two of the players called up by the Red Sox to be used as replacement players. The strike was eventually settled and the regular season began in late April. But all the replacement players who stuck around, like Mahay and Daubach, cannot ever become a part of the MLBPA. For quite some time, the regular players did not even speak to these replacement players. Mahay was one of the players that got the worst of this. Daubach spent part of the 2004 season with the Red Sox and did get a World Series ring, so he was able to somewhat return to the good graces of the union rank and file.

This represents a huge difference between the two sports. The union in baseball is literally uber alles, and woe be any owner who impugns it or any player who shows any disloyalty. But in football, the owners will always win because the players will cave in in the end. The NFL goes on as the premier sport in the USA, while MLB continues as a romantic favorite but one which comes under great scorn by the fan base thanks to the ineptitude of the owners and the commissioner, and the continued invincibility of the players union which perpetuates high salaries and questionable self-policing policies.

The attitude of the baseball players finds its way back to Miller, and the standards he set nearly 50 years ago. Football has no such lineage. There is no Marvin Miller that football players can look back on as their rock of Gibraltar. The 1987 replacement players cost the NFL players dearly, and this lockout is another example of the owners wielding the power they have in football which should surprise no one who has seen the game evolve over the last few decades.

These lawsuits by Brady, Manning and Brees is something that bears watching, as it may be the one new innovation that gets the players on equal footing with the owners. It is a gamble that carries with it a great deal of urgency for the players. But when someone of high stature like Kraft happens to be in Israel on unrelated business matters during what was supposed to be the original CBA deadline, it speaks volumes as to how lightly the owners regard this situation. Maybe these lawsuits will make the owners stand up and take notice.

But in the end, do you the football fan want the players to win and then become another bunch of baseball union types who turn out to be the inmates running the asylum?

Actually, what you should be rooting for is for either someone to win or for both sides to find some common ground, and when early September rolls around, you're not scanning your satellite dish for some CFL game because there's no pro football on the home front. Some fans might remember the CFL games on NBC in 1982, as Dick Enberg helped acquaint you with such players as Gerry Dattilio, Dieter Brock and Warren Moon, the latter two eventually becoming NFL starters later in the 1980s. It's not likely that the CFL will become mainstream in the USA in 2011 like it was in 1982, but if the general public wants pro football that badly, you never know.

Like it or not, it's on. Owners versus players. First and ten at the 20 yard line. Here's Brady under center, only this time instead of staring at someone like Ray Lewis, he's staring at Kraft. Let the battle begin.


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