With two of our major sports in full-blown labor disputes, it’s important to remember that no two lockouts are exactly alike. What’s the difference between the NFL and NBA versions? And, most importantly, which is better in each of these ever-important lockout categories?
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Getting in trouble
The NFL had a nearly four-month head start — not to mention each of the league’s 32 teams carry 38 more active players than the 30 NBA franchises — and there have been 17 players arrested, according to the FOXSports.com arrest tracker. Since neither league’s drug-testing program is active during the lockout, some players in each league allegedly tried to take advantage. Free-agent running back Laurence Maroney, Tampa Bay defensive end Alex Magee and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Michael Beasley have all been arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession. There have been a few DUI arrests as well, most notably Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward.
EDGE: NFL (but it’s early)
The NBA may have pioneered the salary cap, but give credit to the NFL for getting it right. (At least, if you’re an owner.) In place from 1994-2009, the NFL salary cap was a so-called hard cap, meaning the team cannot go over the set limit. (The 2010 NFL season was uncapped since the owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement. The salary cap was $123 million in 2009.) There’s wiggle room in the NBA salary-cap structure. The 2010-11 salary cap in the NBA was $58.044 million. There are, however, nine exceptions — most notably the “Larry Bird exception” that allows a team to sign a player who had been with a team the previous three seasons — that allows a team to exceed the cap. A team that spent more than $70.307 million last season had to pay a luxury tax. Maybe that’s why the NBA players get 57 percent of league revenue.
The NFL, overall, is hardly a money-losing entity. The league has revenues of $9 billion and it’s growing. The negotiations — both before and after the owners locked the players out in March — have been exactly how to split up that massive chunk of money. The NBA, however, lost $300 million, if you believe the figures provided by the league. The commissioner’s office claims 22 teams lost money last season. Hey, nobody forced the Atlanta Hawks into paying Joe Johnson a six-year, $119 million contract. Oh, and that contract is guaranteed. There isn’t nearly as much guaranteed money in the NFL.
There aren’t a whole lot of options for NFL players, at least as far as football is concerned. Blame the fact that the game is very much an American institution. The Canadian Football League and the reconstituted Arena Football League don’t pay nearly as well. Maybe that’s why Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski turned to the boxing ring March 12, the first day of the lockout. He won that fight along with at least two other bouts in recent months. Denver Broncos wide receiver Britt Davis wrote on Twitter that he was offered a job at Abercrombie & Fitch. Since basketball is much more global, the NBA players have some more options. New Jersey Nets guard Deron Williams said he is contemplating playing in Europe. Several other players are reportedly exploring their options overseas, much as the NHL players did during their lockout.
It’s hard to feel sorry for multimillion dollar quarterbacks Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — three of 10 players who are party to an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. Former players, who felt left out of CBA negotiations, filed a class-action lawsuit earlier this month against both the owners and players. No lawsuits have yet been filed by the National Basketball Players Association. Also props to the NBA players for not echoing Patrick Ewing’s quote from a dozen years ago during the last lockout: "Sure, we make a lot of money, but we spend a lot, too."
The lockouts likely haven’t been a major factor — at least yet — in players deciding to call it quits. Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel and Tennessee Titans quarterback Kerry Collins have retired since the end of the 2010 season. The only notable NBA player to call it quits so far has been Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, whose decision was all about his injuries and not about the work stoppage. The NFL has also seen one significant un-retirement: former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber. Of course, some veterans could choose to call it quits if either lockout stretches on.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell isn’t claiming poverty on behalf of the owners. Not even an economics degree holder like himself can swing that. Goodell, however, has managed the public relations side of things at least as well as the players, who voted to decertify their union and filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league. That’s no easy task since these owners possess teams worth north of $1 billion and make millions per season. NBA commissioner David Stern and his office have been their usual combative selves. After nearly three decades on the job, that’s what you have come to expect from the former lawyer. But as reports continue to surface that the league may not be in as dire financial straits as the league’s owners depict, Stern loses a little credibility.
It’s been four months, but at least the NFL and its players are talking. Sure, the opening of training camp is only a few days away and there seems like a decent chance some preseason games could be lost — not that anybody would really notice or care. But the NFL owners have several million reasons to get a deal done by opening night on Sept. 8. NBA owners — regardless of how many are actually losing money — aren’t in much of a hurry and there are probably more than a handful who wouldn’t mind losing an entire season. Some NBA owners also hold stakes in NHL teams that benefited greatly from that league’s lockout, which wiped out the 2004-05 season and led to major salary reductions.