Sports Law Symposium sheds light on collective bargaining agreements
by Ian Fisher
If the predictions of many in the sports law world come true, fans should gear up for some interruptions in play in the near future and some extreme changes in sports way down the road.
Over a dozen prominent players in the sports world were on hand on Jan. 29 for the Entertainment and Sports Law Society’s 2010 Sports Law Symposium. Many spoke about the future of sports and three panels spoke about the expiring collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League.
Harvey W. Schiller, keynote speaker, talked about his vision for the future of sports, a somewhat gloomy forecast. Schiller has worked for Turner Sports, Turner Broadcasting System, and YankeeNets, which launched the YES regional sports network. He has also been the executive director of the United States Olympic Committee and the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference from 1986-90.
Schiller said many issues are going to plague sports in the future, including current teenagers being too tied to technology, immigrants bringing their own sports preferences and most importantly energy woes affecting the sports world. He predicted that energy to get to sports events could have a big negative effect on parts of sports.
“Take the Texas Rangers,” he said. “The Texas Rangers play in a stadium between Fort Worth and Dallas; to get there you have to drive. That new electric car may take you there but you may have to plug it in to get back home. I think that kind of stadium is going to be challenged. The Yankee Stadiums, Citi Field – they’ll survive – large metropolitan centers with lots of public transportation and support systems.”
Schiller told the story of how he became the SEC commissioner right out of the Air Force. Schiller, a longshot for the job to Roy Kramer, thought his interview was going poorly when University of Mississippi Chancellor R. Gerald Turner asked him why they should want a military mind running the often-troubled SEC.
“I stood up and I said, ‘I don’t think it’s so bad for a conference like yours that has been cheating its entire existence to pick someone from an institution where you don’t lie, you don’t cheat, you don’t steal and you certainly don’t tolerate it,” Schiller said. “Have a nice day.’ And then I walked out.”
Michael McCann, an associate professor of law at Vermont Law School and a legal analyst for Sports Illustrated, gave an introduction about what collective bargaining agreements are in the NBA panel. Basically, they dictate the terms and policies for teams and players and how the league is run.
“Often people say, ‘Why don’t teams just unilaterally impose rules on players? Wouldn’t it be easier if we just avoided any kind of bargaining?’ McCann said. “If teams were to do that, those rules would be subject to section one of the Sherman Act, which prevents anti-competitive behavior by management.”
By going through the collective bargaining process, the Sherman Act does not come into play. If the players’ union and owners do not come to an agreement, either the owners can lock the players out or the players can strike.
The NBA’s CBA expires at the end of the 2010-2011 season, but the league can extend it to 2011-2012 if it chooses. McCann does not see the league agreeing to an extension and he sees a lockout looming.
A couple of issues for the NBA are the percentages of revenue going to players and owners. One of the biggest issues is where revenues go. Right now, 57 percent goes to players and 43 percent goes to owners, but the owners want closer to 50 percent, McCann said.
McCann sees how long the players can go without pay as a determining issue if the owners lock the players out. Sports litigator Alan C. Milstein also predicts a lockout but thinks the players not getting paid will be too big an issue for them.
“The information I have is there will be a lockout, but I think it will last a very, very short period of time. The players will fold,” he said.
Andrew Brandt, who has worked in management with the Green Bay Packers and as an agent and now writes for Nationalfootballpost.com, said there are a few issues that will be up for negotiation in the NFL’s collective bargaining. Eventually, though, it all comes down to money, he said.
“I think we’re going to hear a lot of issues in the press,” he said. “There will be a lot of issues about the rookies. Everyone loves to talk about the rookies and the [Matthew] Stafford deal and how it’s ruining mankind that these rookies make so much money,” he said. “We’re going to hear about conduct, we’re going to hear about drug testing. But ultimately those are all ancillary. The obvious big issue is how much. How much do players get, how much do managers get, and how much of what?”
On the baseball front, former MLB Players’ Association head Donald Fehr predicted less turmoil. He led baseball’s very strong player’s union through a strike in 1994 and now is a consultant for the NHL Players’ Association.
“The next round of negotiations in at least three of the sports – baseball being the exception – I think the likelihood of a labor strike or a lockout is fairly significant, by no means certain; we hope it doesn’t happen and that they work it out, but the stars don’t align that well,” Fehr said in the symposium’s closing address.
One major theme of Fehr’s speech was how different labor issues are in professional sports than in other industries. One reason is because the players and owners are so wealthy that they don’t get desperate to settle quickly.
He gave the 2004-05 NHL lockout as an example of something that could only happen in sports. Basically, the owners wanted a salary cap and the players did not. The owners broke the players and got them to agree after a full season off, Fehr said. In any other industry the players could have played for a competitor.
In the NFL, the CBA expires at the end of the 2010 season. Agent Paul Healy, UF alum, said a lockout could happen and he is trying to prepare his clients for it.
“A year away? You hope not, but it might get to that though,” Healy said. “The NFL is an $8 billion plus a year business and I’d hate to think that everybody can’t get together and agree on something. As the saying goes, pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered. Everybody just gets too greedy.”