In a recent Freakonomics Quorum, Stephen Dubner asks the following question:
It’s a widely held perception that the professional athletes who constitute Major League Baseball and the National Football League have different levels of power — i.e., players have more juice in M.L.B., while it’s a team’s ownership that has more power in the N.F.L., often at the expense of individual players. Is this true?
I think it’s pretty clear that NFL players have less power than MLB players. The NFL has a hard cap, non-guaranteed contracts, and I think the union has sometimes pushed keeping itself alive rather than focusing on player rights. Salaries are not just lower in the NFL, jobs are much less certain, careers are shorter, and the long-term health consequences are worse. So, I agree with the perception.
Why is this the case? Here are some reasons that I have come up with.
- The nature of the game makes players more important in baseball, and coaching systems more important in the NFL. NFL players are cogs that are easily replaceable in a way that they are not in baseball.
- NFL players are invisible in their uniforms compared to baseball players. Therefore, they are at a disadvantage in garnering public support during work stoppages. People don’t feel sympathy for jersey numbers, and fans are happy to root for replacements. There is financial reason that agents started telling their clients to take off their helmets after big plays and owners voted to put an end to it.
- NFL players have had some poor representation and bad luck while a MLB has had good representation and good luck. Marvin Miller was a catalyst, and the owners bungled their handling of Hunter, Messersimth, and McNally. This gave the players a mountain of bargaining power when their interpretation of the reserve clause was denied by arbitrators. Had they handled these conflicts better, or if arbitrators had sided with the owners, the owners might not be in this mess.
- A reason put forth by Bill James in one of his Abtracts (I don’t recall which one or if I’m remembering his argument exactly) is that the minor leagues in baseball offer a big protection to major leaguers. Virtually every individual in the world who is capable of playing baseball at a near-major-league level is in the minor leagues. These players are waiting for their big break and plan to one day join the union; therefore, they do not cross the picket line. If the players strike, the replacement players the owners might use are far more inferior than replacements in the NFL who have regular everyday jobs and would jump at the chance to get a shot. This reason is strengthened if #1 holds.
I think that #3 and #4 (exacerbated by #1) explain much of the difference. Other thoughts?
Addendum: Thanks to Cyril Morong for the pointer.