The MLBPA's power -- and the NFLPA's failings

Illustration by Mark Smith

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THERE ARE MANY layers to unpack with Josh Hamilton and his employer, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. First there is his drug relapse, allegedly into cocaine use; there also reportedly have been two alcohol-related relapses in the past six years. There is the refreshing defense by the media of his private life and a disturbing racial double standard that accompanied it. (Josh Gordon was afforded no such defense.) Then there is the curious response by the Angels, who were apparently upset that their own player didn't get suspended by MLB.

The MLB players association has been called the most powerful union on earth, and Hamilton's case illustrated its muscle. According to a report in the New York Daily News, Hamilton's lawyer and union officials convinced an independent arbitrator that the outfielder was not subject to discipline because other than one slipup, which he self-reported, he had followed his treatment program. The arbitration process, fought for by the union as part of the Joint Drug Agreement, also protected Hamilton's $83 million in remaining salary, much of which the Angels wanted to recoup through a suspension, explaining in part why the team turned on its own player.

Where the MLBPA's power resonated most, however, was in an unlikely place: the NFL. In the old days, which is to say as late as six months ago, a football player in Hamilton's case would have been disciplined by Roger Goodell without much chance of appeal, unless having an appeal heard by a Goodell designee sounds like justice. But these days, as Gordon and Wes Welker can attest, Goodell can no longer unilaterally impose sanctions on players without a third-party arbitration process, an important victory for the NFL players association. NFL players are still miles from their baseball counterparts, but consider this: In 2009, zero percent of disciplinary cases were subject to neutral arbitration. That meant the commissioner was judge, jury and executioner on all issues, on and off the field. That number has risen to 97 percent, the NFLPA says. And in the cases of Gordon and Welker, that new process resulted in reduced suspensions for their drug violations.

But while these gains could serve as a unifying moment toward the ultimate goal of reducing the commissioner's absolute power, the NFL union and its retired players are instead fighting a civil war over money. Last month NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith successfully withstood a hostile takeover, defeating the eight candidates who sought to replace him. The failed coup revealed the fractures inside the union that have weakened it: There's no player who serves as the public face of union solidarity and power, the role Joe Torre, Robin Roberts, Mark Belanger, Dave Winfield, Tom Glavine and David Cone have played in baseball since 1966. Outside of Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, the most visible, richest, most glamorous players -- the quarterbacks -- are also the least active when it comes to fighting for player rights.

The greatest of them all, Joe Montana, will forever be linked with crossing the picket line during the 1987 NFL strike. Nearly 20 percent of the players joined him that year. This might seem like ancient history to you, but the consequences of failing to stick together are still being felt. Goodell's power is weakening, but the commissioner can still keep his players in limbo, lording over them through his ability to create a holding pattern in the discipline process. He still has not suspended Greg Hardy over his domestic violence case, and he has not yet released Adrian Peterson from the exempt list even though he claimed he would after the completion of the running back's legal process on child abuse charges.

Goodell's days of handing out yearlong drug suspensions like candy are over, but the players will still be subject to arbitrary justice as long as the commissioner can wield that personal conduct hammer. To take it away, the union will have to exorcise the ghosts of the 1987 strike; instead of infighting, maybe all the players need to topple Goodell is a little more solidarity, a little more belief. Look no further than baseball for the benefits of solidarity and belief: Commissioner Rob Manfred cannot discipline Hamilton. The Angels cannot take his money. The process is clear and equitable -- because it was negotiated from a position of strength.