Friday, July 27, 2007


Unfortunately, scandals are rocking most of the major sports over the past few weeks. In Major League Baseball, you have Barry Bonds inching ever closer to the most hallowed record in all of sports, an NBA official accused of gambling on games he officiated, allegations of dogfighting and general misbehavior in the NFL, and yet more failed drug tests in the Tour de France. However, the NFL scandal is the most interesting one to me at the moment.

Lately, it seems it has become fashionable to bash Major League Baseball and its Collective Bargaining Agreement, while heaping praise on the NFL. In point of fact, if you take a more comprehensive look, then it's hard to overlook the fact that there is substantial inequity between the power of the NFL Players Union and the NFL. And, many of the gains in popularity achieved by the NFL have come largely at the expense of the players' well-being.

The recent cases of Mike Vick and Pacman Jones provide for an interesting dichotomy between the labor practices of the NFL and MLB.

When Marvin Miller was fighting to establish the Major League Baseball Players Association as the primary representative body of the players, one of the landmark achievements was the concession that was negotiated to establish an independent process for dispute/grievance resolution. The ability of players to have their grievances heard by an independent third party paved the way for many of the gains the players were able to make over the years. The commissioner (who is in the direct employ of the owners, not an impartial advocate for both the players and the owners as commonly believed) no longer had absolute power to run roughshod over the players. Unfortunately, the NFL Players' Union has never been strong enough to gain that right through the collective bargaining process.

That basic, fundamental right determines in large part how much power the commissioner has over his respective players. In MLB, the commissioner does not have absolute power over the players, while the commissioner in the NFL does. In either sport, whenever a player is suspended, inevitably the player will at the very least contemplate appealing the decision. However, the sports have very different processes for hearing those appeals.

In the NFL, the same person who hands out the suspension would also hear the appeal. For example, Pacman Jones was recently suspended by Roger Goodell for the season. Jones filed an appeal, which will be heard by Goodell! The man who handed out the suspension also had the power to rule on the fairness of that ruling. There is no system of checks and balances, rather the NFL commissioner has absolute power. In MLB, appeals are heard in impartial, binding arbitration. Accordingly, any disciplinary action handed down by Bud Selig is subject to review by a neutral third party. This is the reason why suspensions for players are routinely reduced in MLB, as impartial 3rd party arbitrators rule on the fairness of the disciplinary action.

In MLB, the independent grievance process acts as a check on the powers of the owners/commissioner. In the NFL, the appeal process is toothless at best and totally ineffectual and irrelevant at worst.

Now, I am not a fan of either PacMan Jones or Michael Vick. The base anti-social behavior they have exhibited is deplorable. PacMan's behavior towards people is despicable. As for Vick, I agree with Mahatama Ghandi when he said, "You can judge a nation according to the way it treats its animals." There is a lot of truth to that statement, as people in positions of power should not use that power to mistreat those over whom they have control.

That said, this country is founded on the rule of law. The person charged with the crime is entitled to due process. When the government acts to deprive a person of life, liberty, or property, then it must respect the legal rights of that person. People are innocent until proven guilty. They are entitled to a trial by a jury of their peers, the opportunity to face their accusers, see the evidence presented against him, and put forth his defense. In short, the accused is entitled to a formal legal proceeding before being convicted. Whether you agree with the alleged actions of these football players or not, they are certainly deserving of their day in court before any disciplinary action is taken.

However, that is not how it works in the NFL, as the commissioner can act unilaterally to deprive these football players of their ability to make a living. The NFL commissioner has the power to prohibit these players from ever taking the field again. And, he can do so BEFORE they ever have their day in court, much less have been found guilty. The potential for abuse of power is staggering in the NFL and the Vick case is a prime example. Unfortunately, MLB learned the hard way about the potential for abuse of this power, which is why the MLBPA pushed so hard to eliminate this aspect of the commissioner's power.

If Vick is truly guilty, then he certainly deserves whatever punishments he has coming to him. But, do we really want a professional sports commissioner sitting in judgment on the actions of player before that player has been afforded his day in court? To me, it is the courts who should determine the guilt or innocence of the players, not the commissioner, who is unqualified for the task.

Even the commissioner is not above the law. The commissioner should act on the findings of the court, not in lieu of the court. This is just one example of how Major League Baseball got it right and the NFL got it wrong, but I doubt we'll be reading about that anytime soon, as that just wouldn't be fashionable.

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