By Ridge Mahoney
And the game of chicken continues, sort of.
Up against a twice-extended deadline to finalize a new collective bargaining agreement with MLS or play another season under the same conditions or go on strike, the MLS Players Union has instead decided on d), none of the above.
“We have advised our players to keep working for the time being, but as of Friday they will be doing so without a CBA,” Major League Soccer Players Union executive director Bob Foose said in a statement. “In the meantime, all options are being considered as the process continues.”
The options include striking, because if the CBA is no longer in force, neither are the clauses by which the union promises not to strike and the league promises not to lock the players out. So, technically, the players can train and play while holding the strike threat in hand, and the owners can elect to lock the players out. In essence, the deadline was anything but a deadline, merely a signpost on a two-lane, one-way road to uncertainty on which the players and the league are racing side-by-side, neck-and-neck.
On Monday, the league offered an olive branch to the union: extension of the current CBA by which its conditions would apply for the 2010 season while negotiations continued. Of course, the union can argue under such conditions there’s no reason for the league to settle, since it gets another guaranteed year of the way it pretty much wants things. However, it would also ensure both sides – as well as staff members, thousands of workers, and hundreds of thousands of fans – that the 2010 season would be played.
I can certainly understand the players’ anger at the league’s draconian policies. The single-entity system utilized by MLS tilts all the leverage away from them and offers very little in the way of fair practice as defined in other professional sports. On the other hand, MLS is one of the world’s more stable leagues, where salary checks are delivered on time and for the full amount.
I can also appreciate the league’s adamant stance on the status quo as effective and efficient, if also arbitrary and prone to misuse. In theory, the league carefully manages salaries league-wide to optimize use of its stringent resources; in practice, it routinely suppresses players’ market value by denying them any MLS negotiation leverage, and teams offer low-ball salaries while trying to extract a much higher relative value in trade discussions of players whose contracts have expired or been terminated.
One of many frustrations experienced by the players is the stubborn refusal of MLS to reveal enough financial data for the players to scale their financial demands. And with the league most adamant about denying the players any form of free agency as it is normally defined, it’s hard to discern where a middle ground suitable for both parties can be found. It’s not hard to imagine a brave new world where some haggling among teams for a player is permitted within snug financial boundaries, or a benchmark of service by which a player could attain more flexibility regarding guaranteed, options, etc.
But that’s for another day. All the bickering and sniping and tactical maneuvering has sparked vigorous debate and spun out a few, but not many, details pertaining to the core issues of guaranteed contracts, unilateral options, and movement of players waived, whose options have been declined, or out of contract.
As distasteful as the current CBA is to the players union management and its members, it’s time to call this a draw, take the point, and get on with the next game.
It’s just not good tactics to retain the strike threat during the season; it may be most effective, of course, for that threat to exist while games are being played for real, but other than angering and alienating the American soccer community, the past few weeks have proved the rest of the sports world just doesn’t care.
Once the Olympics are done, March Madness and baseball will take center stage. The Tiger Woods Watch persists. Heck, far more people are following the NFL Combine in Indianapolis than the MLS CBA wrangling. This league and this sport needs all the momentum it can generate for the monumental World Cup pop to come in a few months, and besides, if nothing else, what happens if the players strike next month, and Landon Donovan knows there’s no league to come back to? If the players refuse to extend the current CBA, are contracts still in force?
I’d like to say the players should stick to their guns and get at least most, if not all, of what they want. But unlike the NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB, there’s not enough traction and stability to ride out a work stoppage. Not yet. It’s more important to get Philly up and running, to keep the momentum going in Toronto and Seattle and Salt Lake City, to see how a balanced schedule and a (short) World Cup break affect a season, to give Columbus at least a fighting chance against Toluca in the Concacaf Champions League, etc.
There’s plenty of publicity during a strike and all of it is bad. Even if the league retains the status quo, it hasn’t won. Neither have the players. Both have suffered. It’s a bitter, nasty goalless draw.
A strike, though, is a clear lose-lose.