American Football: US courtroom drama stops play

Lawyers are only winners from damaging legal battles as mainstream sports hit buffers

Los Angeles

Sharp. Tough. Hungry. Hate to lose. Obscenely overpaid.

These are the clichés being attached to the biggest players in this American sporting summer. But here's the rub: most of them are quite overweight. And they do all their competing in a shirt and tie.

Legal disagreements are currently clouding the future of the nation's three largest professional sports: Major League Baseball, NFL Football, and NBA Basketball. Some tectonic issues remain in play. And with precious little on-field excitement at this point in the calendar, the back pages and ESPN tickers are being dominated by pronouncements emanating from teams of heavyweight lawyers.

For a fabulously litigious society, which likes to settle its most serious questions in court, high-stakes legal showdowns are hardly new. But it is rare for so many big-ticket disputes, affecting such a panoply of sports, to reach a rolling boil at one time. Not since 1994, when baseball's World Series was lost due to a nine-month player strike, have so many storm-clouds loomed upon the armchair fan's horizon.

In Atlanta yesterday, representatives of the NFL's players and team owners were still haggling over a deal to end a four-month pay dispute. You need an advanced degree in accounting to understand the intricacies of the dispute. But it has been summed up by President Barack Obama as a case of billionaires squabbling with millionaires over the vastness of their respective bank balances. The advent of Twitter has only added to the acrimony. "Tricked, duped, led astray, hoodwinked, bamboozled" was how the Washington Redskins defensive end Vonnie Holiday on Thursday described the experience of negotiating with his corporate masters over a formula for calculating the "salary cap," an upward limit on the amount NFL teams spend on players.

Haggling over the cap, which effectively dictates what proportion of the league's vast profits end up in the pockets of players, has been going on since the last Super Bowl, when an old deal ran out. For almost the entire off-season, clubs have instigated a "lockout" – a sort of reverse strike, which sees playing staff banned from training facilities.

With days (if not hours) until the affair delays the start of the season in September, deadlock appears to be on the verge of breaking. Under a new deal – endorsed by team owners but awaiting the approval of players as this went to print – the "salary cap" will be marginally reduced.

Even then, they will hardly be impoverished. Under the new formula, squad salaries (typically shared by around 50 players) will this year be limited at around $120m (£74.3m). Crucially, clubs will also sign up to something entirely new: a salary "floor" – or minimum amount each must spend on playing staff. It's thought to be around $90m.

In a sport where relegation doesn't exist, fans hope this new rule will prevent smaller-market sides such as the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns from under-spending on players (and therefore condemning their teams to perennial underachievement) to maintain stratospheric profit margins. That should over time make some of the NFL's traditional losers more competitive.

Almost all the NFL's pre-season training has been lost. Months of transfer activity will have to be shoehorned into a few days. And for the upcoming season, that's bad news for sides with either brand new coaching staff – such as San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos – or new starting quarterbacks, such as Minnesota Vikings.

But whatever the NFL's woes, its overall finances are at least in rude health. Thanks to the quasi-communist structure, the league, in which many commercial assets are pooled and shared between clubs, every single club turns a profit. Most have a net value of around a billion dollars.

The same cannot be said for basketball, which is meanwhile involved in a heated salary cap dispute of its own. Twenty-two of the league's 30 sides currently lose money; some of them a vast amount. Club owners consider serious reform essential to the sport's long-term financial viability. But talks have completely broken down, and a lockout is in place. With neither side prepared to yet flinch, there is growing consensus that part, or perhaps all, of the coming season, which is due to tip off in November, may be lost.

Then there is the soap opera that is the travails of the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of baseball's most valuable and historic franchises. With the Major League bogged down in its torturously long regular season, the future of the once-glamorous side is being decided by bankruptcy courts.

The club were purchased five years ago, using almost entirely borrowed money, by Frank McCourt, a wealthy Bostonian who made his fortune in the car park business. He immediately placed most of his family on the payroll, and used the club's assets to fund his lavish lifestyle.

Car-parking charges were raised, along with the price of beer and hot dogs. Tickets became more expensive. And while income soared, the club paid little attention to its fans. Though the team's stadium was in desperate need of renovation, Mr McCourt devoted his energies, and money, to personal spending, acquiring no less than seven luxury homes.

The wheels came off his adventure last year, when he suddenly split from his wife of 30 years, Jamie. Their remarkably colourful divorce has included revelations of marital infidelity involving Dodger employees. In one court filing, Mrs McCourt alleged that she needs $1m a month to maintain her lifestyle, a sum which includes tens of thousands for restaurant meals, and thousands more on fresh flowers.

Under local divorce laws, she is also entitled to half of their assets. This, along with snowballing legal bills, have left McCourt unable to invest in his team, which has duly slumped to its worst league position in several years. Fans have responded by staying at home. And last month, this financial circle saw the club enter bankruptcy protection.

In court this week, the Major League, which would like Mr McCourt to sell the Dodgers to someone more solvent, attempted to force him to accept a loan from their organisation, to meet its monthly payroll. McCourt's lawyers argued that he ought to be allowed to take a more expensive loan from a different creditor.

During the ensuing legal argument, the MLB's commissioner was likened to "the devil" while McCourt faced comparisons with a "miscreant 13-year-old" and was accused of extracting $180m from the heavily indebted club. Local sports pundits described it as the most exciting moment in the Dodgers season so far.

America's team owners tend to be billionaires (the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, for example, are controlled by Microsoft founder Paul Allen). They seldom hear the word "no". Players meanwhile devote their lives to winning. Those competing character traits don't make for an easy compromise. And across major sports, in these dog days of summer, the people cashing in on this are lawyers.

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