It's easy to understand when a television network refuses to air an ad during a game for specific reasons -- if an ad is overtly political or endorses something ethically or morally repugnant, there are enough other corporations willing to give that network the millions of dollars it takes to get a commercial aired during the game. The network can afford to be choosy.
Unfortunately, it appears that CBS, in taking ads for this year's NFLPA All-Star Game on its College Sports Network, took things up a notch by refusing to air the NFLPA's "Let Them Play" ad, which portrays an America without football and has several fans and players imploring the league to "Let them/us play," for other reasons. The ad is your standard hearts-and-minds stuff from one side that you'd expect in the face of a possible lockout in March, but what possible reason could CBS have for refusing to air it?
Well, there is the small fact that the NFLPA and the NFL are both waiting for a ruling from a Special Master on a claim that the Players' Union filed. The PA contends that in the last television deal, the owners negotiated in bad faith, essentially sacrificing upfront money for the insurance that TV money would still come through in the event of a lockout -- essentially providing the "lockout insurance" the owners would need to break the union in a protracted labor deal.
Essentially, CBS is acting as a bad-faith defendant, refusing to air an ad from an entity with whom it currently holds a dispute. And if that isn't a conflict-of-interest claim waiting to happen, I don't know what is.
Another possible angle is that the network doesn't want to risk displeasing the league and losing that sweet TV deal down the road. "It's pretty clear that the powers-that-be don't want the players' voices to be heard," said Pete Snyder, CEO of New Media Strategies, who created the ad.
George Atallah, assistant executive director of external affairs, told Advertising Age Magazine that no straight answer from the network was forthcoming. "I tried to have my team contact CBS to try to understand exactly what happened, but apparently they said they didn't want to get involved with the labor negotiations."
Atallah also said that while he knows of no specific request from the owners to pull the ad, the decision to do so tells people what they need to know about the relationships the league have with the networks.
In refusing the ad and neglecting to give a specific reason beyond a vague claim that it doesn't want to be involved in labor negotiations (too late for that!), CBS brings up a topic that the owners would rather not see discussed -- once again, the NFL's antitrust exemption should (and will) be called into question, especially if the NFLPA decertifies in the face of a lockout, allowing an antitrust suit to be filed.
With this particular potential lockout, it seems that every little step along the way -- every little development -- has a much greater meaning to the future of the league. CBS has added its name to that phenomenon by inserting itself into the battle in the supposed name of neutrality. It's not the same impact that would be felt if such an ad was rejected for the Super Bowl, but these "little things" are how larger disputes tend to begin.
Yahoo! Sports has learned that the NFLPA plans a video response sometime on Tuesday.