- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2001

Following Bud Selig's grilling Thursday on Capitol Hill, the commissioner of baseball mentioned in passing he would be attending today's pivotal Green Bay-Chicago NFL game at Lambeau Field. Selig is a director on the Packers' board, and he gushed how great it was that the NFL's economic system allowed a team from a town of 90,000 not only to survive but thrive in the league.
"They have a system that truly works," Selig said. "A little town like that being able to have hope and faith, it's tremendous."
The obvious question then, of course, is why Selig hasn't taken his own hint. For nearly a decade, the NFL has progressively taken one important step after another to build long-term labor harmony, competitive balance and economic might, while baseball has bumbled badly on all three counts.
It's easy to blame the owners for their mess, quantified in nearly a quarter-billion dollars in annual operating losses, more than $3.1 billion in industry debt and off-the-charts competitive imbalance. No one is holding a gun to any owner's head to pay astronomical salaries. The owners have not policed themselves sufficiently to ensure that revenue sharing doles for small-market teams are actually used to improve the clubs. And the owners are the ones who signed Selig to a three-year contract extension two years before the current pact expired despite the rising tide of red ink.
But Selig has a key point when he says the real answers to baseball's woes lie in collective bargaining. Any meaningful fiscal reform must be agreed upon between the owners and players. Both sides openly admit that.
So what happened during Thursday's hearing before the House Judiciary Committee? There was little meaningful discussion of baseball's antitrust exemption and its effects the very reason for the hearing. Only slightly more talk centered directly on the causes and potential cures for baseball's economics.
Rather, much of the day devolved into a useless sideshow sparring match between Selig, the committee and the players union as to what economic data was disclosed to the union and when. Selig says the players have been briefed on industry finances since the mid-1980s. The union feels the owners are hiding some figures and fudging others. And the committee feels it's being double-talked.
"The numbers don't add up," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican and committee chairman.
Most frustrating of all, the reams of data Selig released really don't mean much in the wider picture. The specific numbers already have come under serious question. But regardless of what they really are, the figures don't change the facts that the union and owners have a badly disfunctional relationship growing ever worse, competitive imbalance is crippling the game, and until the financials grow drastically worse, new ballparks will still be built, players will still be signed to large contracts and banks will still lend owners money.
The bickering continues between the owners and players just as it has for decades, pushing the two sides further away from not only solving their current dispute on baseball's plan to eliminate two teams before the 2002 season but from reaching a new labor deal.
Fans closely watching the game's roller-coaster ride of the past month now assume contraction will not happen for the 2002 season. But they do firmly expect another work stoppage that could last well into the season.
Contrast this circus to the NFL. The late 1980s and early '90s were a dark time for the league and quite similar to baseball's current situation. The use of replacement players during the '87 players strike left a horrible taste in everyone's mouths. New York, Washington and San Francisco were rolling over the rest of the league with regularity. Distrust between Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association, and commissioner Paul Tagliabue was palpable. The two sides played for six years without a labor deal.
Over time, however, both sides finally realized if they laid down their swords, together they could create the most dominant entity in professional sports. With the NFL's TV ratings, attendance as a percentage of stadium capacity, merchandise sales, Internet traffic and overall fan affinity now leaving every other league in the dust, that's precisely what has happened.
The most prominent move to that aim was a complex 1993 labor deal in which the owners granted players unrestricted free agency rights in return for a salary cap. The trade gave each side a key concession it had sought for years but also tied them together at the hip. Veteran players could finally take full charge of their careers and maximize their incomes, but only within the overall limits set by the salary cap, which in turn reflect league revenues. The result of the accord was a clear incentive for each side to cooperate with the other and work to grow NFL coffers.
"We have recognition on both sides of the bargaining table that working together is more fruitful than confrontation, and that produces willingness to compromise and not get stuck in rigid, ideological positions," Tagliabue said earlier this year. The league and union have extended the 1993 deal four times and are eyeing labor peace through 2007.
Seven years after the bitter players strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series, baseball still hasn't gotten that message. Some constructive labor talks occurred in the spring, but they never really went anywhere. Selig and player union chief Donald Fehr now are taking shots at each other again, hoping to score a well-placed soundbite and some public support.
Apparently little do they realize that the time has long since passed where either was a sympathetic figure.

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