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Unions had better start doing their jobs to protect NFL players’ rights

NFL and owners will only move forward if forced to in a new collective bargaining agreement

Colin Kaepernick’s act of protest in the backdrop of a presidential election, and now administration, where race is front and center has created a firestorm with regard to racial attitudes and relations in America.

The protest, using sports as the platform, has opened a conversation that is long overdue in America, and each day more people are brought into the debate offering support or disagreeing with the protest. Whatever your opinion, the‎re is still an “uncomfortable silence” from the segment of the sports community that can actually effect the very change Kaepernick, NFL players and other athletes are seeking. Black labor in football and basketball (about 70 percent in the NFL) is critical to the NFL‎, NBA, WNBA, USA Basketball, the NCAA and the Power 5 conferences.‎ But let’s stay with football and basketball for now.‎

Any solution to this protest will require the commissioners‎ and union leaders in both sports to demonstrate the courage currently displayed by the athletes and the bold thinking required to change status quo. While management and labor are most often adversaries, they are financial partners in a defined revenue sharing/salary cap business model because of the collective bargaining agreement. Thus, the biggest challenge to leadership on both sides of the aisle is to determine when and how outside forces affect revenue and franchise values.

Negative market forces may then require that they collaborate or work together to find a remedy. That’s why the meetings last week and the ones next week are important. They signal the next step in the negotiation. How can it end? Here are five thoughts on how and why a professional sports initiative can contribute to an action plan while influencing the long-term social justice change that the players seek.

First, every owner of a professional football or basketball team should read and digest Gregg Popovich’s quote in response to the protest: “I absolutely understand why they are doing what they’re doing, and I respect their courage for what they have done. It’s easier for white people because we haven’t lived the experience. It’s difficult for many whites to understand the day-to-day feelings that many black people have to deal with. If it’s not your daily experience, you don’t understand it. I didn’t talk to my kids about how to act in front of a policeman when they get stopped. I didn’t have to do that. All my black friends have done that. There’s something wrong with that, and we all know that.”

Second, the players need a strategic plan with specific goals, expected outcomes and costs as well as unity on a path forward.‎ This is precisely what Russell Okung called for in his letter posted on The Players’ Tribune. Okung is to be commended for his initiative. However, this is a major function of his union, which has failed the players to this point by taking a passive, reactive position until joining the NFL in a statement regarding last week’s owners meeting. ‎

Third, the NFL and the NBA are powerful economic and political entities with the same highly successful business model: Both are governed by collective bargaining agreements that include “a revenue sharing and salary cap system” that provides a fixed percentage of defined revenue for salaries and benefits for players. This amounts to about a 50-50 split of such revenue between those who own teams and those who play on them. This business model has allowed for the substantial increase in total revenue and franchise value. The NFL now generates approximately $14 billion and the NBA approximately $7 billion annually, with franchise values averaging $2 billion in the NFL and $1 billion in the NBA. This year’s TV contract allowed for the NBA salary cap to grow from $70 million to $94 million per team. Both leagues have prospered greatly since congressional approval of their mergers in 1968 (NFL) and 1976 (NBA). As corporate entities, many using publicly financed facilities, is there a social responsibility to assist all communities in their respective cities?

Fourth, Kaepernick and 49ers CEO Jed York each contributed $1 million to a charity fighting inequality and injustice, as did Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Hornets. A collective effort by both leagues and its players is most effective to foster a return on human investment. The union’s mission is to advance the interest of its players, not just to be management’s adversary in the battle over wages, hours and working conditions but, as financial partners, to decide which issues to fight over and which to fight together. For example, a path forward will have a financial cost. In this instance, it would be to designate a fixed percentage of shared revenue to create a centralized fund to use sports as a tool to address the inferior education in inner-city public schools and the deteriorating relationship between young black men and law enforcement in our cities. The cities would apply for the funds. Appearances by current and former players, along with law enforcement, would serve as an inspiration for higher aspirations for the schools’ youths while improving relationships with the communities.

Fifth, the NFL and NBA have organizational structures to accommodate such a centralized plan. It would prove to be an upgrade to the public relations and community relations programs of The NFL is Family and NBA Cares, which, to a community in crisis, appear to be empty promotional slogans.

I made these suggestions a year ago. This is not a difficult negotiation if there is a commitment to change the status quo. Trust to do the right thing together is absent. The fact that we have seen continued protest says that collectively the leagues and team owners may not want to facilitate or take ownership of a social justice cause. Instead, they would like to promote what individual players are now doing in their communities. We know that town hall meetings have occurred. This would be a minimum cost and a disingenuous attempt to satisfy the players.

Both organizations’ leadership reminds us of the U.S. Senate leader trying to get 51 votes, which suggests lack of unanimity. And, always in the leagues’ mindset, is the long-term strategy of collective bargaining and the effect of any short-term victory the players might gain. Remember the NFL would also like to extend the current collective bargaining agreement and get a new stadium credit. And despite current salary levels, the players in both leagues have suffered substantial loses in the billions of dollars, which was gained by management and may account for mixed support.

A plan with a fixed cost would bind the league for an extended period that is not the intention of ownership. Institutionally, no union leader or commissioner has voiced a strong position on injustice and the protest. What NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said last week was more about pacification, not real progress.

Charles Grantham served the first Executive Vice President of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) and was its first Executive Director. He helped transform the NBPA from a mere bargaining unit to a multifaceted organization designed to enhance the league’s image and protect the NBA players. He helped establish the league’s four Collective Bargaining Agreements and was an architect of the industry’s first revenue-sharing/salary cap business model that guaranteed a fixed percentage of NBA revenue to players. Grantham is currently Director for Sport Management and Associate Professor in Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business.