March 17, 2011
There's an interesting potential twist to the current end of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, which is this: If players want to play for another league, there doesn't seem to be anything stopping them from a legal or contractual standpoint. If the UFL or CFL hit up Randy Moss(notes), Aubrayo Franklin(notes) or Bruce Gradkowski(notes), and asked them to take salaries in the low six figures to play some sort of football with a network deal that would get their efforts telecast in most American homes, there doesn't seem to be anything the NFL could do about it. Once the CBA ran out and the NFLPA decertified last Friday, everything was fair game.
It's a subject that's been of interest to me for a few months, and I asked two player reps — Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita(notes) and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth(notes) -- about it on an NFLPA media conference call on Jan. 11. George Atallah of the former NFLPA also chimed in.
Me: This is kind of an out-there question, but is there anything anywhere that would prevent NFL players from forming or joining an alternate league in the event of a lockout and/or CBA expiration?
Atallah: I think it's an interesting question. Well look, once the contract expires, all bets are off. Once the CBA expires, [the players are] unemployed.
Fujita: That's kind of what I was going to say. You know, if there's a lockout, we don't have a place to go to work. Could the players start their own league? Yes, absolutely, that could happen. Will it? I don't know, but yes, that's kind of a far-out-there question.
Foxworth: I mean, we're unemployed at that point. We'll be looking for work anywhere so if there's a league that's offering us a reasonable deal, it's not unreasonable that an unemployed man would take a job that offers him the ability to demonstrate the skills that he has.
Fujita: And maybe we'll coach in runaround teams, too.
Foxworth: That was awesome. I want to be the owner of the Baltimore [Brands].
Funny ha-ha, yes, but according to former Tennessee Titans defensive end and current free agent Jason Babin(notes), it's an idea whose time may have come. The NFL has never experienced a work stoppage when alternate leagues were in effect, and while the UFL has no illusions of competing directly with the NFL as the American Football League and United States Football League did, players who love the game, or who want increased exposure for their skills, or who have run out of money in an extended stoppage, may very well jump ship. Babin's no scrub, either -- he made his first Pro Bowl in 2010 after racking up 12.5 sacks for the Titans. And former Dallas Cowboys practice-squadder Troy Bergeron(notes), a receiver who just signed a reserve/future deal with Dallas, wound up skipping off to the Arena League.
"Right now, I am free and clear to do as I please,'' Babin recently told Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean. "I could play in the Canadian Football League if I wanted to."
More importantly, he could play in a UFL that has been dealing with a lawsuit brought by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who loaned the league $5 million and was rather unhappy about not receiving payment. It's well-known that Cuban has thought about buying teams in other sports — he tried unsuccessfully to purchase the Chicago Cubs in 2008, and you'd think his entrepreneurial instincts would certainly pick up on the possibility of owning a team filled with NFL players, even in the short term. Other entrepreneurs, who see the cash cow the NFL has become (no matter what the league's current owners may have us believe), might buy in and resuscitate the UFL for the kinds of short-term gains the younger league might provide if it was literally the only game in town.
"I know those leagues would love to grow their awareness and if they got a certain amount of high-profile guys to join in, the money would go from the NFL pool to the CFL or UFL pool and maybe they could negotiate a TV deal," Babin told Wyatt. "Now that would scare the [stuffing] out of the NFL owners if they could pull something like that off, you know?
"So the NFL owners are fighting two fights. They are fighting a lockout fight, and they could be fighting the rise of the other leagues. They make themselves vulnerable the longer this lockout goes on.''
If the players don't win the antitrust lawsuit that begins on April 6, and the owners are permitted by law to lock the players out, the odds of a quick settlement are dim at best. The owners would likely use the leverage given by a lockout to dictate terms. But if a high percentage of the players were to play in a different league, it could be a victory on two levels. First, the players would prove that this really is about the game to them. Second, the players could build equity in the hearts and minds of an American public that, for the most part, doesn't care at all about the specifics of a labor fight — they just want football.
And the machinations of an alternate league could be one way for America to have it.
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