Daniel E. Smith, Workers Compensation Attorney
Even if you don’t follow professional football, or any sport at all, you may have heard about the NFL’s recent legal troubles. The NFL’s owners and players have a bargaining agreement in place in order to help protect each other’s interests in the business end of this multibillion dollar industry. But recently, one party wasn’t respecting the other’s interests. I’ll admit that when the story first came out, I was quick to follow what the news media was saying about the disagreement. But then I looked at it from a legal perspective and found that the root issue is one I encounter often in the course of an injury claim.
The NFL’s most recent legal trouble stems from the owners renegotiating their contracts with major television broadcasters, such as DirecTV, CBS, Fox, and NBC. The owners wanted to renegotiate these contracts in order to ensure that the networks paid for the games even if they didn’t air. This was a very real possibility because the owners and the players union was not close to reaching a new collective bargaining agreement as the deadline got closer. If they reached the deadline without agreeing to new terms, then there would be a “lockout” and no games would be played and, therefore, no games would be broadcast. Without the new contracts, the owners wouldn’t get paid.
Because the collective bargaining agreement stems from the fiduciary relationship between the owners and the players, it didn’t seem fair that the owners renegotiated their contracts to protect their own salaries with no regard for those of the players. So, the players claimed that the owners had violated the standard of good faith and fair dealing that the contract and collective bargaining agreement implies. The players assumed that since they worked with the owners to negotiate that they would have the same agreement when it came to all aspects of the game.
Sports media skipped all of this legal detail and chose to focus on the fact that the court ordered the owners to pay the players union $6,000,000. An ordinary person hearing about this transaction might assume that the issue didn’t have to do with what was right, but what was lucrative. When we hear about the player’s salaries, the owner’s net value, and how much a team is worth, a person can easily assume that these arguments have to do with amassing the most money. At 200 billion dollars, the NFL is a very profitable industry.
The number of star players in the NFL isn’t that large when you compare it to the number of average players. Each team has 53 players and there are 32 teams, making the grand total of NFL players 1,696. Sure, some of those are household names and may be able to make money off of that fame for the rest of their lives, but the majority won’t. Instead, they’ll have 3 or 4 good seasons, but leave the league because they cannot endure the physical toll of football any longer. They may have sustained serious injuries that require lifelong treatment. A six or seven figure salary for three or four years isn’t very appealing if it’s meant to last over the course of a lifetime.
Contract law has a lot to do with laws that explicitly state that people or organizations should treat each other with respectful consideration. That’s why the players union took the owners to court over the broadcast contracts. They used legal tools, such as mediation, attorneys, and litigation, to protect their rights.
When it comes down to it, this process isn’t much different than an insurance company’s need to balance their business pursuits with the fact that their business rests on protecting consumers. They have a responsibility to provide benefits for customers who are covered under a policy, but they may resist paying claims in order to protect profits. They need to argue on behalf of both from time to time. The NFL owners also need to make strategic moves that keep the players on the field and playing for the American audience that funds the beloved industry.
The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement has brought the concept of good faith and fair dealing in contracts to the masses, but they may have to do some more research to find that out.