In years past, when you wanted news on labor negotiations in professional sports, you turned to a small handful of insiders who worked for established media outlets. They relayed carefully crafted messages from the league's power-brokers to the people, and that was extent of the information the public received.
Things are different now.
We last faced the prospect of potential labor strife in the NFL in 2006, when the NFL and the NFL Player's Association nearly failed to come to terms on an extension of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. At issue wasn't an immediate work stoppage, but the potential of a work stoppage in 2008 were a deal not done. But during those negotiations -- behind closed doors -- former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and former NFL Player's Association chief Gene Upshaw were able to strike a deal at the eleventh hour which preserved labor peace and allowed the NFL to keep rolling.
This time, though, the public has access to less-controllable information. Thanks to the impact of social media -- most notably Twitter -- not only has the public had a front-row seat to the labor negotiations as they have unfolded, but depending on who you ask, the public might even have a voice in the process.
Opinions differ on how impactful social media has been in labor negotiations thus far. But with the NFL standing alone as the most profitable sports league in the country, both the union and the league understand that fans are the ones who drive nearly $9 billion of revenue per year into the league's coffers, and a lot of those fans are signed up for one social networking site or another. As a result, both the union and the league have tried to curry favor with fans as labor negotiations have played out in an unusually public fashion.
David Cornwell, president of the sports law firm, DNK Cornwell, points out one example:
"When the NFL walked out (of a negotiation session) over the issue of whether the NFLPA's proposal was actually a proposal, their initial reaction was to not comment at all. But as not only traditional media, but also social media began to log in on the implications of whom did what to whom -- I think it was 2 or 3 days later -- the NFL actually came out with a statement that was a little bit more meaty in terms of what happened in the room."
The fact that the NFL was forced to do anything as a result of the voices coming from the cheap seats is a testament to the changed conditions these labor negotiations are taking place under. Previously, fans had less information to digest on the negotiations and no way to communicate their frustrations to anyone outside of their circle. As a result, most fans simply disengaged. But now, with the ability to access information and real-time social networks from anywhere, fans are not only informed about what is going on in the labor process, but they are making their voices heard.
Long-time NFL agent David Canter, the CEO of DEC Management, sees a number of material differences between the current round of CBA discussions and those that occurred in 2006.
"Back in '06 we knew the 'fire and brimstone' talk about a lockout was probably a little more smoke and mirrors than it is right now," Canter says. "There is no doubt that we are at a much different stage. The union has been preparing players for well over a year. Last time we faced a lockout there wasn't that kind of preparation. There weren't any websites created to specifically warn players of what could happen, telling them that they needed to start saving money. It's just a much different negotiation."
Canter, who is one of the more active agents on Twitter, believes that things have become much more complicated for parties to the negotiation as a result of misinformation that often is given life through social media.
"In 2006, you had maybe 10 people who really had anything of value to report," he says. "It was just the insiders, people like Peter King, who had reliable, factual information. But now you have 500 Tom, Dick, and Harrys on blogs or other social media, and they're creating news that may or may not be accurate. Those kinds of things can spread like wildfire, and next thing you know is it's all over the news and being reported as fact when it isn't."
Canter was among more than 700 agents who attended a high-security NFLPA agent meeting last week at the NFL combine. The security was in place -- in part -- to ensure specific information didn't make it beyond the walls of the room. However, despite the protective measures, details of what was being discussed inside the meeting were being streamed on Twitter almost as quickly as they were said.
Those kinds of leaks put Canter and others involved in the process in the position of constantly having to clarify (cynics may say spin) information.
"Now, more than ever, you have to look out for people putting things out for the sake of creating that wildfire," he says. "You saw that (the other day), when it was reported as factual that the NFLPA will decertify on March 3rd, and that's not true. It's incorrect. We're being told that it's a strategy and possibility, but that no decision has been made and there are still some constructive aspects that can come out of talks Tuesday and Wednesday."
So yes, there is an incredible amount of information available to the average fan now, but the flip-side to to "inside information" is that you're not always sure that what you're hearing is accurate. For those who spend a lot of time on Twitter, you're well aware of how quickly information travels, false or otherwise.
The NFLPA's assistant executive director of external affairs, George Atallah, and NFL spokesman, Greg Aiello, are both on Twitter and have engaged each other a few times in the past few months. Whether veiled or direct, their interactions have given us all a glimpse into just how contentious the negotiations have been at times.
As Twitter's popularity has increased, stream-of-consciousness tweeting from players has as well, and that's not always a good thing for the Union. Back in January, Antonio Cromartie voiced his displeasure with the lack of information sharing between the league, the union, and the players in an interview, which other players perceived to be a break in the ranks. That led to a number of players calling him out though social media, including Matt Hasselbeck's public inquiry into whether or not Cromartie knew what C.B.A. stood for. Cromartie responded swiftly to Hasselbeck's question by telling the quarterback that he would break his face.
Not exactly the show of solidarity the union was looking for.
While it appears that the Cromartie incident may have been an outlier, one of the most important elements of whether the union will be able to hold its ground in this dispute is whether the players will be able to financially survive an extended lockout.
Should a lockout occur, there are three periods of time when you should be paying special attention to social media:
1) From now until 11:59 p.m. ET Thursday, when the CBA is set to expire. Traditionally, this has marked the start of free agency. That's the point in time when we'll know if the lockout is real.
2) The month of March, which is typically dominated by free-agency. Fans are accustomed to signings during this time, and players whose contracts are up for negotiation will begin to get antsy.
3) Late April and early May, when most teams are focused on solidifying their 53-man-roster,
4) July. With the season starting at the end of the month players, coaches, front-office types and others are trying to squeeze in their last bit of vacation before training camp. This will be a particularly interesting time to have a direct line to the players' thoughts as you begin seeing how the players self-organize in the absence of the strict schedule they're used to.
"The future of the National Football League as we know it is at stake in the Collective Bargaining Agreement,” Canter says. “The dynamics of the way pro football will be viewed forever and eternity in this country are at stake. It could be the most cataclysmic thing to happen to a pro sports league in the history of the United States, and social media is a very scary aspect of that."
Exactly how scary remains to be seen, but for the first time in history, fans will have a seat near –- if not at –- the bargaining table.
- Rand Getlin covers issues at the intersection of law and sports for ThePostGame.com. He is a sports attorney and president of Synrgy Sports Consulting.