While taking a microeconomics course a few years ago I was introduced to the concept of the Prisoner's Dilemma. I saw it in action on an episode of the show Numb3rs as well. Given the way the "negotiations" between the NFL and NFLPA have gone so far, I'm struck by the fact that the whole situation seems to be a classic Prisoner's Dilemma situation.
Got no idea what I'm talking about? I'll explain:
The prisoner's dilemma is a fundamental problem in game theory that demonstrates why two people might not cooperate even if it is in both their best interests to do so.
Say Person A and Person B team up to rob a bank. The police catch them and put them in separate interrogation rooms. They tell each of them that if they give up the other person, they'll be given probation, but if the other person gives THEM up, they're facing 10 years. If they both refuse to say anything the defense will have a hard time making their case, so they would each get one year. If both people accuse each other, they'll each get half of the ten-year sentence, or five years. Here's the problem in matrix form (made it myself on Excel!):
If you look at the problem in general, the move that makes the most sense for both players combined would be to both stay quiet; they would only be looking at one year each. However, if you look at the problem from an individual person's perspective, it changes. If you're Person A, and you look at this matrix, if you accuse your partner, you're either looking at five years or zero years, depending on what Person B does. If you stay quiet, and your partner also stays quiet, you're only looking at one year, BUT...if you stay quiet and your partner accuses you, you're in lockup for ten years. Which one makes the most sense? For the individual, the option that makes the most sense is to accuse your partner; the best-case for the individual is zero years, and the worst case is five years. If the individual stays quiet, the best case is one year, and the worst case is ten years. Basically, the point is that even though it's in the group's best interest to do one thing, it's in the individual's best interest to do the exact opposite.
The NFL and NFLPA find themselves in a similar quandary. If they were to both make major concessions and try to meet in the middle, we'd likely have already started free agency. However, the problem is that if one side makes major concessions and the other side doesn't, the side that made the concessions has now lost major bargaining power. If neither side makes any concessions, the court case proceeds, and a judge settles the matter, just like in the prisoners' case. For the group NFL + NFLPA, the option that makes the most sense is for them to both make concessions and get a CBA hammered out; however, for each side individually it makes the most sense to stand firm and make no concessions. If they make no concessions, the worst-case is that they try their luck in court and possibly win, and the best-case is that the other side makes concessions and they get everything they want. It's just sad that the two sides can't see past the Prisoner's Dilemma and realize that they're both individually standing in the way of what's best for both sides as a group.