The first collective bargaining agreement in the history of professional sports was signed by the MLB and MLBPA in 1966. At that time the executive director of the MLBPA was the late Marvin Miller, formerly a union negotiator for workers of U.S. Steel. His fierce advocacy for labor rights is largely why in 2023 a career in professional athletics can be massively lucrative. On Wednesday, the NFLPA announced its new executive director — Lloyd Howell from the world of private companies that do business with the U.S. military.
He started early with a giant in that industry — Booz Allen Hamilton. That is the company that Edward Snowden was working for when he revealed NSA secrets to the media. Howell first began as a consultant for the company in 1988 after graduating from Penn with a B.S. in electrical engineering. He was named CFO in 2016, and stepped down from that role at the end of last year. Howell also worked for a few years in the 1990s for Goldman Sachs in investment banking after earning an M.B.A. at Harvard. Miller took his economics degree from NYU and went straight to the National War Labor Board as the world was getting embroiled in World War II.
The NFLPA is not the first labor organization of its kind to turn to the business world for leadership. Tamika Tremaglio took over as the NBPA executive director in 2022 after retiring from the accounting behemoth, Deloitte. The Washington Post described her as having a “gentler touch,” than her predecessor Michele Roberts.
NBPA president C.J. McCollum was quoted extensively in that piece. He appreciates how she discusses ways for the players to not only manage their money but to grow it. McCollum also talked about wanting players to generate equity in the way that owners do and flatly said, “It’s crazy that we’re not able to invest alongside the ownership groups in independent deals.”
That quote has me concerned about players associations becoming more friendly to people on the other side of the negotiating table against them. The necessity of unions is that workers face an inherent disadvantage against management when it comes to finances. Where workers draw their power is the fact that they outnumber management. So when they show a willingness to fight, then management is forced to negotiate compensation in good faith.
After the fight that the MLBPA went through during the 1960s and 1970s to eliminate the reserve clause and usher in free agency, the NBA’s first unrestricted free agent was Tom Chambers in 1988. Free agency did not come to the NFL until 1993. And in 2011, NFL and NBA ownership fought the players with everything they had to flip the revenue split back in their favor.
At the conclusion of the 2011 NFL lockout, the revenue split between players and team owners went from 50/50 to 53/47 in favor of the owners. For the players, revenue can currently climb as high as 48.8 percent. The NBA lockout that same year went longer with only 66 regular-season games ended up being played that season. The players’ share of revenue decreased from 57 percent down to 50. Currently, NBA players receive anywhere from 49-51 percent.
While a hard salary cap like the NFL’s is a non-starter for the NBPA, the current collective bargaining agreement is clawing for it like a sit-and-reach test in school. The new NBA agreement was signed into league law in April. While teams have more of an obligation to reach the salary floor, spending past the luxury tax line will incur far more penalties than simply $3 for every dollar.
NBA franchises with payrolls that exceed the second apron of the luxury tax will have limits on avenues to acquire talent. They will have no mid-level exception or be allowed to take in more salary than sent away in a trade. The luxury tax was bad enough, but now the NBA is instituting hard restrictions on how teams high enough into the tax are permitted to acquire talent.
The NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement is intact until 2030. Howell has a ways to go before the players count on him to bear his teeth. Who knows how television will even operate then, but it’s likely that the NFL will still be the most viewed program. For most of spring 2023, NBA playoff games were the most viewed telecasts among people under 50 years old.
Professional sports leagues still provide great value to the owners of organizations. The athletes who provide that value have reached out to people on that same side of the table for representation. They need to question if these big business lifers truly have laborers’ best interests at heart.