Owners' argument doesn't hold up

BY foxsports • April 28, 2011

With the NFL draft just hours away, the billionaire owners and their minions have now earned that admonition heard by generations of workers more oppressed than those they now claim not to employ:

“Get your asses back to work.”

At this point, you’ve got to attribute their losing streak to something other than a conspiracy of pinko federal judges in Minnesota. Maybe their argument sucks. Kind of like their lockout.

The owners’ most recent papers, filed Wednesday, suggest that the draft itself could be imperiled if judge Susan Richard Nelson abides by some of the players’ recommendations. In that respect, it merely reiterated predictions of doom and anarchy raised by commissioner Roger Goodell in a piece for the Wall Street Journal.

I applaud the Journal (acknowledging, as usual, my own prospective conflicts as an employee of News Corp.). It obviously believes in the marketplace of ideas. I mean, why else would a paper as august and robustly conservative tolerate such whimpering anti-market pap on its op-ed page?

But back to the draft. Don’t worry. I promise you it will go on as planned. Unfortunately, nothing could violate football’s covenant with a generation of fantasy nerds, not to mention ESPN. In January, when the owners already knew the lockout was pretty much a sure bet, the league signed a deal with ESPN worth about $2 billion annually. That includes Monday Night Football and the draft, which, based on last year’s ratings, is a better television property than an NBA playoff series featuring Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. The ESPN-NFL deal doesn’t include a single playoff game. Still, the owners (with ESPN’s expert conceptual guidance and relentless hype) figured out a way to monetize an event that went all but unnoticed a generation ago. These guys can’t help but make money. They just can’t agree how to whack it up.

The irony is that owners and management types complain incessantly about the draft. Why? It involves risk.

Cam Newton — supremely talented but reputedly flawed — might not make it as a quarterback. But without question, he’s the perfect symbol for tonight’s event. He’s a $50 million risk no one wants to take.

Will he be the next JaMarcus Russell?

That’s the question management and ownership keep asking. It’s interesting, sure. But it’s the wrong question.

The real question is, who will be the next Tom Brady?

ESPN has turned the draft into an epic game show. Hence, the footage of Brady weeping while recalling his sixth-round selection in 2000. I’m not arguing that was inauthentic. But it camouflages Brady’s real economic significance.

No player is more responsible for the transformation of the New England Patriots from also-rans into one of the elite franchises in sports. The Patriots don’t go to four Super Bowls without Brady. Robert Kraft doesn’t get a new stadium without Brady. But Brady was still making the league-minimum salary in his second year when he led the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory, his first of three.

Now the owners want you to believe that Brady, who, not coincidentally, is the first plaintiff named in the players’ antitrust suit, represents the interests of the high-end talent as opposed to the rank and file. As Goodell put it in his op-ed piece, “their approach would benefit some star players and their agents (and, of course, the lawyers themselves).”

Who does this guy think he’s kidding? The lockout does result from a conflict between the haves and have-nots. But it’s between big- and small-market owners, not the stars and the scrubs.

As one prominent agent told me Wednesday, “Owners want to privatize the gains and socialize the losses.”

As for Brady, he’s 33, with a supermodel and a new baby at home. He’s got four more years at $72 million, $48.5 guaranteed. He already made his score. What does he need this for?

Maybe there’s an actual principle involved. While owners are risk-averse, players gladly assume risks, mostly in the form of their own bodies.

But you know that. Just like you know about all the first-round busts. Personally, I don’t think a rookie wage scale is such a bad idea, provided the players’ share of revenue isn’t diminished. It might give owners the cost certainty most socialist regimes require while rewarding players for meritorious service. Still, that debate is for another time.

For today, just remember that for every JaMarcus Russell there’s a Tony Romo, an undrafted free agent. Or a Joe Montana, who went in the third round.

For all the risk, rewards remain abundant. Goodell’s owners are the envy of their counterparts in baseball, basketball and hockey. You want to talk competitive balance? Consider that the last three Super Bowl winners were from decidely small markets: Green Bay, New Orleans and Pittsburgh. And, unlike baseball players with their sore arms and long-term contracts, football players can be cut without ceremony. Football has a “hard” salary cap, no “Larry Bird Rule” like the NBA.

NFL owners don’t have to fund a farm system; America’s universities (many of them publicly funded) provide it for them.

Still, Goodell writes glowingly of a system that “allowed the NFL to expand by four teams” and resulted in “two dozen new and renovated stadiums and technological innovations such as the NFL Network and nfl.com” — both of which will profit handsomely from tonight’s NFL draft.

You shouldn't need a federal judge to figure this one out. A lockout? Really? What the hell were they thinking?

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