As noted earlier in this blog, the UC Berkeley Labor Center staged a panel discussion on Wednesday about collective bargaining and anti-trust issues as they pertain to the world of professional sports, and especially the current NFL lockout. It was a timely topic, to say the least. The NFL had just gone through what might have been the strangest week in its short history and it wasn't even in season. As one reporter summarized it, “From lockout to injunction to limbo and back to lockout — with a draft thrown in. Not even Super Bowl week gets that wild.”
Before the event, CALIFORNIA Magazine was able to sit down with one of the participants in the discussion, former Golden Bear Scott Fujita, who went on to win a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints in 2010 and is now entering his tenth year in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns. Fujita, who has a BA in political science and an MA in education, both from UC Berkeley, serves on the executive board of the (now-decertified) NFL Players Association. What follows is a transcript of the interview in a slightly condensed and edited form.
CALIFORNIA Magazine: Okay, so tell us where things stand at the moment.
Scott Fujita: Right now we are locked out but there’s a temporary stay pending the three-judge panel’s decision at the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St Louis. The buzz I’ve been hearing all morning from some of my legal people is that the stay will be granted. If that’s the case, the lockout continues. The actual appeals hearing will be June 3rd in St Louis, so by mid-June we’ll have a much clearer picture about what’s next. Other than that, there’s another hearing with Judge Doty in Minnesota to decide what happens with that TV money, the League’s lock out insurance fund of 4 billion dollars, and whether damages will be awarded, and how much, to the players.
CM: Can you give me a brief explanation of what that’s all about?
SF: Yeah, so that was the League’s ace in the hole, and if we didn’t catch it, they would have all the leverage in their favor. But our Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, when he found out that they had 4 billion dollars of TV money coming to them whether games were played or not, he said to me, ‘That just doesn’t sound right. What networks would finance something like that?’ So, we did some digging around, and some materials from the League offices got leaked, and there was this decision tree where they’re talking about how they can generate new monies in the event of a lockout. And this is from back in 2008, mind you, shortly before the economic downturn. So, this had been a well-calculated, premeditated effort to lock the players out and squeeze them, especially the 80% of guys who are only in this league for 2 to 3 years, and try to get them to panic and want to get a deal done right away. But according to our settlement case from back in 1993, the NFL had the responsibility to negotiate all new TV deals in a way that helps maximize revenues for the players, because we are business partners. They actually left money on the table in this case, so that’s basically a violation our collective bargaining agreement.
CM: What’s your history with the NFL Players Association?
SF: I first got involved years ago when I was a rookie in Kansas City. I didn’t know shit about anything, I was just was happy to be in the NFL. In Kansas City, I was lucky because I was on a team with some really good NFLPA team reps and was exposed to the whole idea of doing everything you can to maximize the players experience within the League, while he’s playing and beyond, and to help take care of guys past, present, and future. I know we say that all the time, but that’s the reality and for me. When I got to be in years 2, 3, 4, Gene Upshaw [former Executive Director, NFLPA] would come in every year and I’d be yelling and screaming, ‘We need this!’ and ‘We need that! I think the Berkeley stigma followed me into the NFL. Finally someone said, ‘Hey you need to get involved and actually do something,’ and I said, ‘You know, I kind of enjoy my off-seasons, I don’t want the extra paperwork….’ I was just being selfish about it. I got to a turning point after Gene [Upshaw] passed away and we were going to have to elect a new leader. I said this is the moment where I definitely feel like I have to be involved. I want to be a part of the interview process. I want to make sure we elect the right guy and make sure that he understands that he works for us.
CM: So what are you telling players right now?
SF: For the last couple years now, we’ve been telling guys, ‘Hey, there could be a lockout on the horizon, so be prepared to put your money away’ to the point last season where we were practically spoon-feeding guys direct deposit forms to make sure they were putting the cash into a separate account. Another challenge is just keeping guys informed. I think the immediacy of communication now with Twitter and emails and texting helps us. And players now are more engaged than they‘ve ever been in my ten years in the league. In the player strikes back in ’82 and ’87, the union got broken pretty quickly because they couldn’t keep everybody in the loop. Now I send out an email update to my guys almost daily.
CM: Were the players asking for anything in this renegotiated settlement?
SF: No. Not one thing other than for the owners to prove to us that they care about our health and safety. There’s so much stuff that’s just disingenuous, when they’re talking about how they care about our guys and they’re pouring all this money into researching traumatic brain injury, fining guys now for these big hits, etc.. They’re doing all that but they’re also advocating playing 18 games. To me, there’s a lot of inconsistency there.
CM: Because playing more games means a higher chance of suffering an injury?
SF: No doubt about it. Right now the average career length is about three and a half years. It takes 4 years to get vested and 5 years to get post-career medical coverage. I don’t expect anyone out there to feel sorry for us; we’re very well compensated for what we do, and for the most part we understand the inherent risk of playing football. But there’s a lot of guys who play two or three years and have these catastrophic career-ending injuries, and that’s it; they have no post-career care whatsoever. There’s nothing for them, and to me that’s wrong, so when they’re talking about playing 18 games (right now we play 16, so if you play 8 years it’s a whole extra season you’ve played) with no consideration for changing vesting requirements, no consideration for changing off-season workouts and training camp intensity, that was kind of disconcerting for me.
CM: Was that more of a factor in ending negotiations or was it more about the extra billion dollars that the owners wanted to take out of the revenue sharing?
SF: I think part of it was we went into negotiations from the beginning with every intention of getting the deal done. We went in and we put in a lot of time. And this was our off-season. I’m sitting in meetings for ten hours a day -- its almost like a game of chicken -- and in those ten hours sometimes we only got sixty minutes across the table from the representatives and most of the time the owners didn’t show up. To me, that was the first issue, but then we got to the 11th hour, the Friday of the end of the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) -- after two extensions already -- now they come back with a proposal that was actually worse than the ones previously offered.
Now, the NFL spin machine is pretty impressive. They control the networks. They came out with a powerful message in the 48 hours after the lockout. It was all complete bullshit, but they did a really good job spinning this proposal in a way that made it look like they really did care about the players. But it was not an a la carte proposal. It was a 20-point proposal, item number one being their financial model. Basically the League wanted to make salary a fixed cost instead of a percentage of the revenues and as this game continues to grow and grow as everyone projects it will (they’re projecting revenues of 25 billion dollars by 2027). If it gets to that point, we said all right, then what’s the salary cap? When you break it down, the numbers would’ve been about 25%.
CM: That brings me to the question of what’s going on on the owner’s side. The sport has never been more popular and it has never made more money. Are they trying to fix something that wasn’t broken?
SF: That’s kind of where we’re all scratching our heads. We really don’t know. They always talk about how the current economic model is broken. That’s the company line, but as far as I know and from all the profit data that is available from Forbes and from the Green Bay Packers, business is doing just fine. I mean for God’s sake, the regular season NFL games destroyed TV ratings for the World Series. So to claim that they need a billion dollars back from the players, well, I think we have a right to say ‘Why?’ And a lot of people say, ‘Hey you are the employees you have no right’ but under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, the whole idea is that it’s a partnership. We say just prove to us why and if you can do that then, hey, we’ll sit down, we’ll talk and we’ll figure this thing out because we’re not idiots either. We’ll make concessions if need be and to be honest in our economic proposals we made some pretty big concessions, saying hey, we’ll help you guys out in the short term if there are some issues that need to be addressed but to go any further than that we need more information from you.
CM: You singled out the Packers. Is that because their financials are public?
CM: And none of the other owners have opened their books?
SF: No, a few offered after everything kind of hit the fan about a month ago, and I think that’s great. I wish more would follow suit, but I’m not going to hold my breath for that to happen because the Jerry Joneses of the world do not want those books opened. That I know for a fact.
CM: Do you think to some extent this is really a beef between owners and owners? The owners who are doing really well and the owners who are struggling?
SF: I think it’s more about that than anything else, the fact that they can’t figure out how to divide it amongst themselves. Their solution is to take it from the players.
CM: So now that the players have taken this to the courts and are suing on anti-trust grounds, it seems like you run the risk of ruining a lot of what the League has accomplished: this nice competitive parity everyone talks about with salary caps and the draft.
SF: A lot of people compared it to firing a nuke up in the air and hoping for the best. I don’t know if I want to go that far but it was the only weapon at our disposal at that time because they had all the leverage and if we didn’t do that, they really could’ve driven us into the ground. But with the competitive balance part of it, I mean, that’s a good question. For me, and I know this is a very unpopular remark, but I kind of think the draft is ridiculous. The whole concept of it, to me, has always been really strange. If someone’s graduating from law school or med school and are the very best at what they do, they’re going to get to pick and choose where they go. Now, would changing the system be best for the game? I don’t know, but personally I think the draft is kind of lame.
CM: Getting back to the issue of traumatic brain injuries, on Monday the news came out that Dave Duerson was found to be suffering from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Do you think there are things that the League could do to make the game safer? You mentioned not extending the season, but beyond that … do you think, for example, that penalties on big hits are making a difference?
SF: No, that will not make a difference. I’ve looked at the CTE issue closely. Now there are players from my generation who I actually stepped across the white lines with who are suffering. One of my dearest friends, who I played with, he’s 33-years-old and he was just diagnosed with ALS, and to me it’s kind of a sobering reminder of what I do for a living and it makes me evaluate things from a much broader perspective than I ever have before. For me, when I step into the negotiating room that’s the number one thing on my mind is player health and safety. I don’t want to say that’s all I care about but that’s the thing I care about most.
I know sometimes this whole debate gets whittled down in the media to being this petty argument between millionaires and billionaires, … well the reality is that the more that they chip away at our share of the revenues, the more they’re chipping away at our ability to take care of our guys. So yeah, is it about money? Yeah, everything like this is about money but our share of the money goes toward helping our guys and to me we can’t fold on that, and that’s where guys have to stay strong.
CM: You know of course for a lot of non–sports fans in particular, the response would be, Why the hell do you play the game? You have kids, you have a family, you’re putting your brain on the line. Do you think football is worth it?
SF: I ask myself that tough question more now than I ever have before. I’d be lying if I didn’t say just in the last year or two, in locker rooms on Sundays, there are guys that look around and are like, ‘Man, what in the Hell are we doing?’ And that’s me just being as honest as I can be. In the same way, where a guy gets knocked out cold in the middle of a game everybody goes silent for about ten or fifteen minutes, everybody’s dropping to a knee to pray, and they put the guy in a stretcher take him off. Then they blow the whistle, and it’s as if it never happened, as if one of our guys didn’t just get his head knocked off and might never walk again.
Why do guys keep playing? I think it’s just: This is what we do, this is what we love. For many guys, this is all they’ve ever known. A lot of guys don’t have a lot of other options. And so it’s a tough thing I’m grappling with. People say, ‘Hey would you let your kids play?’ I have two girls. I don’t have a son. I know the company line from teams and even sometimes the NFLPA is, ‘Oh yeah, absolutely we would let our sons play.’ If I had a son, Hell no, I would not let him play this game. And it’s hard for me to say that, but this is my path, and I wouldn’t want that for my son.
CM: You brought up the whole thing about ‘millionaires v. billionaires.’ Most of us never get to meet a pro ball player. What would you want the public to know about NFL football players?
SF: Well, its complicated because I know some of us are spoiled assholes, but that’s the minority. Most of us are good guys who want to maximize our careers, as short as they may be, and do our best to take care of our families. Everyone talks about you, you know, you guys are all just spoiled. They need to understand the big picture, I think, and recognize how important football is to the fabric of this country and for these communities. And I know lawsuits and litigation aren’t popular with anybody, but that was our only measure we had to make sure that this lockout gets blocked and games aren’t missed. And no, we didn’t pull the plug on negotiations. Negotiations, honestly, never really even took place because the owners weren’t negotiating in good faith from the very beginning.