Aug 1 2011

On Lockout, NFL and Media Play on Same Team

TV deals give networks billions of reasons to root for owners

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/RMTip21

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/RMTip21

When it comes to reporting on labor disputes, corporate media don’t exactly have a track record of even- handedness. (See, e.g., Extra!, 4/11.) Throw in a $4 billion media investment, and you’ve got a story ripe for misreporting: the recent dispute between the NFL Players Association and the owners of what Forbes magazine (9/13/07) called “the richest sports league in the world.”

The NFL labor conflict dates back to 2006. In March of that year, the owners—desperate to avoid a work stoppage—voted at the 11th hour to accept a new six-year collective bargaining agreement with the players. Two years later, they changed their minds and voted to opt out of the agreement for the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The major issue was money.

The NFL generates $9 billion of revenue annually. Under the 2006 agreement, $1 billion went to the owners to develop the league. Of the remaining $8 billion, 60 percent went to the league’s 1,700 players and 40 percent went to the owners. The owners want to take $1.4 billion more, cut players’ salaries by 18 percent and extend the playing season, arguing that economic conditions necessitate it (Yahoo Sports, 9/8/10).

But the owners have refused to open up their books to prove their penury. In response, the skeptical players’ association dissolved itself in March 2011 in order to bring an antitrust lawsuit against the league. The owners countered by locking out the players, resulting in the current impasse.


Most corporate media coverage of the issue has framed this as a fight between two ridiculously wealthy groups. As Katie Couric introduced a CBS Evening News report (3/3/11) on the issue: “Up next, a money dispute between millionaire players and billionaire owners puts the NFL season in jeopardy.”

In the same report, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post reiterated Couric’s framing: “The best way to view it is it’s an argument between billionaires and millionaires.”

On the morning of the Super Bowl, Chris Wallace used a similar phrase when discussing the issue with former NFL player Lynn Swann on Fox News Sunday (2/6/11): “Lynn, with the NFL bigger and richer than ever, what do you think of this labor dispute and the possibility of a lockout? Billionaires fighting millionaires.”

While this characterization is true to a certain extent, it ignores a couple of critical points. First, the league minimum salary is $330,000—something the CBS report even acknowledges—and the average NFL playing career is less than four years, meaning many players are not exactly millionaires. Plus, if a player gets seriously injured, his contract can be nixed and the player let go, meaning that in a sport with sky-high injury rates, those earnings are quite precarious (San Francisco Chronicle, 9/1/02).

But more importantly, this reporting conveniently neglects another group of billionaires that have a vested interest in the dispute: the television networks themselves, who are involved in a second NFL lawsuit you’ve probably heard less about.

In 2009 and 2010, CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN (ABC’s corporate sibling) and DirecTV renegotiated their rights fees with the NFL. Facing pressure from the league and their own mounting costs, the networks agreed to deals that would cost less in the short run in exchange for accepting “lockout provisions”—agreements to pay the league for rights even in the event of a work stoppage. The deals amounted to $4 billion in lockout insurance for the owners, money they could use as leverage in negotiations with the players.

On March 1, however, a federal judge ruled that those deals were illegal and has yet to determine what will happen to the $4 billion. The ruling went largely unreported by the networks—it wasn’t even mentioned in the March 3 CBS report, which came just two days later.

Furthermore, the decision took a huge bargaining chip away from the owners and exposed an unsettling coziness between the league and the media conglomerates—a coziness that might explain why CBS refused to run an advertisement from the players’ association on its College Sports Network in late January. The ad, titled “Let Them Play,” called on the League to avoid a lockout; a New York Times blog reported that a CBS spokesperson said “that the network did not want to take sides in the labor dispute” (Fifth Down, 2/1/11).

That coziness might also explain why the owners have had an opportunity to voice their concerns in lengthy interviews, while there has been a dearth of players’ voices on the networks. On the Fox News Sunday Super Bowl special (2/6/11), the guest was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whose job is to act on behalf of the owners in labor disputes. And while Wallace did ask Goodell why the owners have been reluctant to release their profits, he didn’t press the commissioner on his response that “it doesn’t lead to a solution…. I’m interested in leading to solutions.”

CBS’s 60 Minutes (12/12/10) did a profile on Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that edited out a discussion on the lockout. In an extended Web interview, reporter Scott Pelley asked Jones what was wrong with the current contract; the owner of the most valuable sports franchise in North America responded: “Basically, the model that we have does not work. The economic model of the NFL, relative to the players, does not work.” 60 Minutes did not seek out a response from the players, but instead turned to Gary Myers of the New York Daily News to give an opposing view.

Additionally, the aired report inaccurately stated that Jones spent $1.2 billion on the Cowboys’ new stadium. It’s true that the stadium cost $1.2 billion to build, but $325 million of that came from Arlington, Texas, paid for by increases in sales, hotel and car-rental taxes. This error is significant, considering that the cost of stadiums is one of the owners’ primary arguments for taking more revenue (Dallas Morning News, 3/12/11).

In late May, Eric Shawn produced a series of short reports on the lockout for Fox News. Included in those reports was a profile of Goodell (5/19/11) that lauded him for “trying to ensure the future of his sport”—a description that would seem to be at odds with the report’s more accurate later characterization of him as the person “running the owner’s controversial lockout.”

By contrast, when Shawn reported on the players in another Fox News segment (5/31/11), he focused on the players’ “lavish lifestyles” and the effect this might have on their ability to negotiate. No attempt was made to compare the players’ lifestyles—which, like their salaries, are far from uniform—with those of the entirely super-wealthy owners.

When the Early Show (6/17/11) did a report on the lockout’s 100th day, CBS finally let the players speak—perhaps because “NFL owners declined to comment” this time around. But instead of delving into the players’ views on recent negotiation developments, reporter Chris Wragge focused primarily on all the wacky things players have been doing to keep busy during the lockout, like “the gentle art of poetry” and Dancing With the Stars.

The report even managed to plug another CBS show, as Wragge noted that “Colts tight end Dallas Clark has been catching criminals on TV instead of catching footballs, appearing on CBS’s Criminal Minds.”

Reports indicate that owners and players may be getting closer to inking a deal, and may have reached a settlement by the time you read this. But fear not: We may get to see a similar episode later this summer, as all indications are that the NBA is also heading for a lockout. If you’re wondering which networks have huge deals with that league, the answer is Disney-owned ESPN (again) and Time Warner’s TNT—giving ABC and CNN potential stakes in the success of the basketball owners’ tactics.

Zachary Tomanelli is a freelance journalist and a recent graduate of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College.