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IN BREAKING the player's union, the businessmen who run the National Football League have succeeded in doing what their counterparts in other sports leagues gave up trying to do years ago. Ironically, the two sports leagues with the strongest unions--baseball and basketball--are flourishing while football's popularity and television ratings have been on the decline.
The reasons for football's decline can be found in the most basic tenets of capitalism--which the tycoons who run the league don't seem to believe in insofar as football is concerned. The strike itself centered on the owner's refusal to grant the players even a limited right to free agency, a right most Americans can take for granted. More subtly, there is very little market incentive for NFL teams to put winning squads on the field. The resulting stifling of player movement has led to a pronounced parity among the league's teams.
The league's contract with the television networks and ESPN guarantees that each team will break even. The first fan through the turnstile represents profit for these teams, and most of the franchises virtually fill their stadiums on season ticket sales alones. Each team plays only eight home games per year--one-tenth as many as baseball franchises--and sports diehards hungry for outdoor action between the end of the World Series and the beginning of spring training have little alternative.
All of which helps to explain why the strike and the union melted so easily. The scab games largely were ignored by the fans, who were able to have their sports appetites sated by baseball post-season action. Public pressure for a quick resolution to the impasse acceptable to both sides of the dispute thus was not very great.
Union leaders probably would have been wise to delay the strike until the World Series was over. Still, selfish players, such as Mark Gastineau of the Jets and Lawrence Taylor of the Giants--who couldn't comprehend the union's earlier efforts in their ability to sign mega-contracts and bolted the picket lines--need to be faulted for disrupting union solidarity and making it impossible for the Player's Association to stand together through the winter.
So, too, the plutocratic owners. Having won their victory over the players, the owners showed contempt for both their employees and customers by refusing to allow striking players to return to the field this weekend and were content to subject the fans to one more weekend of pseudo-football.
The union has not given up the ghost, however, and announced the filing of an anti-trust suit against the league. Given it is a league in which most players last no more than two seasons and earn salaries far below the astronomical sums awarded to the league's stars, and in which the owners deny all of them even the chance to strike the best deal they can while they can, it is clear where our sympathies should lie.
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