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My Two Cents

My Two Cents

February 21, 2010
MY TWO CENTS
MLS, players union need to compromise or they will ruin many fans' seasons


Will Smith is a long-time New York City soccer fan who is a regular contributor to My Two Cents. This is an open letter to both sides of the MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, between the league and the MLS players union.

By Will Smith
Special to BigAppleSoccer.com

Gentlemen:

As a fan of soccer and MLS in general and the Red Bulls in particular, I was dismayed to read that talks concerning a new Collective Bargaining Agreement had taken a turn for the worse this past week. With our new stadium opening in Harrison, N.J. next month, I was especially looking forward to this season. More importantly, as far as I'm concerned, so was my eight-year-old daughter.

Frankly, I don't think you guys are going to be able to work this all out; certainly not before the artificial February 25 deadline.

The owners (I really think "board of governors" sounds pompous and far too British) seems locked into a "we like things just fine the way they are" mentality while the players seem to be enjoying their role as victims a bit too much for my taste.

Now, to be fair, both sides have reasonable arguments to be made just as assuredly as both sides have ridiculous points of contention.

Before I address the hot button issues, I would like to take a moment to thank both the players and the owners for their sacrifices over the years in terms of time, effort and money. After fourteen seasons, some of which wherein the league's very existence was in trouble, MLS has finally begun to be financially viable.

The owners, having endured the heavy financial losses of years past, see the light at the end of the tunnel and surely think, "If we can hang on a little longer, we'll get there!" The players, on the other hand, see the light and have begun asking, "Are we there yet? Can I have some?"

The truth is that there would be no MLS without the owners' historical willingness to put up with financial losses and the players' willingness to put up with the frugality those losses bred. Now, as we get closer to the light at the end of the tunnel, it seems a shame that both sides have lost the willingness to compromise.

From what I understand (and no one invited us fans to the meetings, mind you), there appear to be five issues that could politely be called stumbling blocks in the negotiations.

They are:

* Guaranteed contracts

* Free agency

* Free agency for players who have not been offered contracts by their clubs

* Club autonomy

* Unilateral contract options

Now, let me advise you that my professional background is in risk management. I spend a good deal of my time managing financial risk and reputation risk. It almost goes without saying that both the players and the league are courting financial risk in the event of a strike. More ominous would be the reputationarisk to both. MLS, players and owners alike, would look inept in the eyes of the worldwide soccer community, draw the ire of domestic fans and the ridicule of non-soccer loving sportscasters such as Jim Rome, whom I can clearly hear saying, "A sport no one cares about went on strike today! No one noticed!"

In my line of work, when we reach a true impasse trying to resolve an issue (such as an ongoing lawsuit, for example) before it blows up into a complete disaster, we bring in an arbitrator to resolve it for us. Often, while fearing that the arbitrator will rule against their argument entirely, the two sides manage to work out an agreement that seemed impossible a few days earlier. It's amazing how much good a little fear can do sometimes.

Now, based on the closed-lipped approach of MLS to the negotiations thus far, I don't expect the guv'nors (as my grandfather used to say) to go for it. In addition, based on the fact that union reps seem ever more frantically willing to dig their heels in every time they open their mouths, I don't think they'll go for it either.

In light of this and in recognition of the stone cold truth that nobody wants to be the first to blink, I will take this opportunity to arbitrate the key issues right here and now. There's no need to thank me. Someone has to behave like a responsible adult for the good of the game and you guys clearly aren't up for the task.

Let's look at the key issues individually:

1) Guaranteed contracts

I don't have a guaranteed contract at my job and neither do most people. A guaranteed contract is a wonderful thing to have, but it's not a God-given right. In fact, there are no fully guaranteed contracts in the NFL, our country's most popular, successful and well-run sports league. I'll be blunt: if the New York Giants young, exciting, productive yet inconsistent No. 2 receiver, Hakeem Nicks, doesn't have a guaranteed contract, then the Red Bulls' young, exciting, occasionally productive and inconsistent striker, Mac Kandji, probably isn't deserving of one either.

The players need to give up on this demand.

2) Free agency

It took baseball players from 1876 until 1970 to achieve any level of free agency (Curt Flood) and subsequent court rulings in 1974 (Dave McNally) and 1975 (Catfish Hunter) to achieve true free agency in 1976, a full one hundred (100!) years after the reserve clause was first challenged. I can almost hear Pat Onstad (aka the Graying Guardian of the Gold Posts) weeping uncontrollably as I write this, but the players should give up this issue too.

3) Free agency for players who have not been offered contracts by their clubs

While it's true that it took baseball players 100 years to achieve free agency, it's also true that MLS has taken the reserve clause to new, cruel heights. If a team chooses not to tender a contract to a player, that player remains the property of that team even if the team doesn't have any intention of re-signing that player. The player is unable to play for any other team in the league and has to hope his team cuts him or trades him, which they may not be able to do. Sure, the player is free to go play in another league in another country, but what if the player, despite this draconian arrangement, likes playing in MLS? Too bad! Sit and wait. As a result of this lunacy, three quality veteran players (Dave van den Bergh, Kevin Hartman and Adrian Serioux) are in limbo this pre-season, hoping their team trades them. These players are, in effect, being held hostage by their former teams (why do I have this image of Serioux gagged and bound to radiator in a Toronto basement while Mo Johnston forces him to listen to bagpipe music?).

MLS has created a situation that defies description. They are preventing people from seeking employment in North America in the league of their choice. Imagine being 16-years-old and McDonald's, your employer, refuses to schedule you for work, but you're not allowed to go work for Burger King either. MLS's logic that allowing these players to be free-agents would drive salaries up uncontrollably is idiotic at best and cruel at worst as, with a salary cap in place, salaries can't get driven out of control regardless of the circumstances. This is an example of MLS being vindictive and petty.

The Solution:

All players non-tendered are considered waived and are either free agents. Another option is to have these players entered into a waiver draft. If a team selects them, they have one week to work out a contract with them. Failure to do so makes the player a free agent.

The current situation is ridiculous and, for all I know, in violation of U.S. Labor Laws.

The owners should be ashamed of themselves. This is a travesty.

4) Club autonomy

You know, I'd like greater club autonomy too. I hate that the league has a million rules regarding player acquisition and is always butting their nose into team issues like youth academies. I think, for the good of the game in this country, teams should operate completely independently, have a $5 million cap, two designated outside the cap, higher developmental salaries and be allowed to sign as many academy players as they like.

The courts have already ruled that single entity is legal, not a monopoly and a perfectly acceptable way to run a league. I don't like it, but its not going anywhere soon. In addition, it should be pointed out that single entity is what kept the league alive in the dark contraction era of 2002. Single entity has helped keep employed, over the years, many players who, frankly, wouldn't be good enough to play in many other countries.

The players need to get over their single-entity hatred. They already lost the lawsuit. They're like those guys who still cry over the girl they missed out on in high school. Get over it.

5) Unilateral contract options

Let's be honest. There are not going to be player options until there are guaranteed contracts and guaranteed contracts aren't happening any time soon. Are we all on the same page now? Pat?

Okay, there you have it. I agree with the owners on four of the issues but agree with the players on the big issue of granting free agency to those players who have been non-tendered. If that seems inconsistent, its not. Its called creating a compromise to avoid a disaster and reduce risk.

I would hope that the owners and the players would put at least as much thought into reaching a compromise as I have.

While it's true that there would be no league without the owners or the players, its also true that there would be no league without the fans. Does a league averaging 15,000 per game really want to alienate any of us when a compromise can be reached (and one always can be reached).

If you guys can't get it done (and I don't think you can), e-mail me back and I will happily arbitrate. We'll be done by lunchtime.

Otherwise, please be man enough to explain to my daughter that we won't be attending the opening of Red Bull Arena because you were stubborn, foolish and short-sighted.

"The opinions reflected in the My Two Cents columns do not express the views of the editors or management of BigAppleSoccer. com"
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