The standard expectation of the NFL Network's lockout coverage is that a media entity owned by the NFL owners will be a mouthpiece for the league and nothing more, especially at a time with labor unrest and a work stoppage affecting public perception of the game to a greater degree every day. I'll admit that there have been times when I wondered if the players and the NFLPA were getting equal time on the network through the mediation negotiations, and whether the league's message would be the network's filter on a no-matter-what basis.
And that's why Rich Eisen's interview with Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday was so important. In a back-and-forth so long that it went past the time limit on the "Total Access" show and onto the pages of NFL.com, Saturday — one of the most outspoken player representatives in this fight -- took a series of frank questions from Eisen and gave back equally frank answers.
Kudos to Eisen for avoiding the temptation to frame the questions; he was at his best as an interviewer, going for the real story as opposed to the slanted soundbite. The network let Saturday say what he wanted to say on several labor-related subjects. We have the full transcript of Part 1 after the jump courtesy of the NFL Network; Part 2 will air on "Total Access" Tuesday night. Saturday will be a guest on the show Tuesday and Wednesday as well.
A great job on both sides, and a win/win for the fans, who want enlightenment into the issues, and the eventual resolution of them. In Part 1, Saturday talks about why the players walked away from the table, and how veteran players would really feel about first-round prospects who chose to attend the NFL draft.
Rich Eisen: "Once again, we are thrilled to have in our studio over the next three days a 12-year veteran in the National Football League, five-time Pro Bowl center of the Indianapolis Colts, Jeff Saturday. But for the purposes of this segment, you are a member of the executive committee of the NFL's Players Association, so we're going to dive right into all of the labor strife that's going on the NFL right now, which you are intimately involved. Let's start with the story of the day that the players have decided to have a draft event during the week of the draft but not up against the Thursday and Friday televised events of the NFL draft. What are your thoughts on that Jeff?"
Jeff Saturday: "I think it's a good idea. I think obviously it shows just a sense of solidarity between rookies who are coming into our game, getting to know people in our association, other players as well, and kind of showing or letting that support, knowing that we're in a locked out situation. I think it was smart they didn't compete necessarily for the actual draft time. I just think you kind of get into the point where it affects fans, and I don't think anybody wants to do that. You leave it up to the player, let them make the decision on where they want to be on draft day, however they want to do that. I think it lends itself to being the best for everybody."
Eisen: "What about the notion, though, that players who do show up at the draft, shake the commissioner's hand, take part in the Radio City festivities, might have some sort of repercussions with veterans in locker rooms once the league opens up for business again. Tedy Bruschi was very vocal about that, obviously a long-standing veteran of the NFL, essentially said I wouldn't want to be one of those players showing up into a locker room. Do you think there's going to be a problem?"
Saturday: "Well I think each team will be different. It's a tough situation though for a young guy. I think, from my perspective, I'm looking here is a 20, 21, 22-year-old young man who this has been his dream his whole life. I think we all agree we're going to play football again at some point, and so to be that strong as a player, when the guy shows up on my team and he's been drafted and he becomes part of the Indianapolis Colts, I'm going to respect him for what he does, and that's what he does on the field and how he lives his life as man. So that one isolated incident I don't think will make or break what a rookie's going to look like to the veterans."
Eisen: "But would you advocate to other veterans, 'Hey back off the kid.' Would you advocate that, or would you just say essentially every locker room's their own and even though a kid wants to take part in a draft festivity that they've been dreaming about and have seen play out year after year after year? Would you advocate not holding that against a rookie?"
Saturday: "Yeah, as a whole I don't think there's a lot of veterans who would hold that against that kid. First of all, it's such a select few of men, maybe 25 guys at the very most. You're talking about the upper-echelon even of the draft, and so when they come into teams, these guys are usually going to be players who are going to be playing for you fairly quickly. You're going to get to know them and know who they are. I think it's a tough decision for them to make, whether do you go up and shake the commissioner's hand being locked out, or do you skip it? And I think there's a lot of pressure that will come from their agents, from their families and from a lot of different areas. So I don't feel like it will be an issue that veterans will necessarily go after those guys or give them any kind of hard time. Your rookie is tough no matter what; you're going to catch your share of flack. So I don't think that will necessarily be the one issue they catch it about."
Eisen: "Let's get to the breakdown in negotiations here Jeff. So many fans disappointed, so many people who depend on the business of the NFL equally as disappointed. I don't want to get into the numbers and all of this stuff that makes your head spin. We don't have a whiteboard, we don't have a forensic accountant on-hand to look at this sort of stuff. And 'true ups,' which sounds like a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger movie; it's confusing. But what isn't confusing is the letter that we see the commissioner send the players, the players' response and then the response from the league, and the players' response to the league's response to the players, that we have seen some sort of in the ether numbers on one side, numbers on another side that sounds like something could be negotiated. That there does seem to be a lot of the response, including the players' response to the league, was in response to what the league did and did not offer. That sounded like something could be negotiated. Why did the players hit the decertification button when they did?"
Saturday: "I'll tell you, it was one of the toughest decisions I've ever made in my life. I was in the room for the 15 days we negotiated, I've been a part of many negotiations that were before that in the two years that led up to it. It was a very difficult decision, but I think from each of us sitting in that room, we realized we were in a time-sensitive issue. And from the players' perspective, we know the best thing that can happen for football is for us to play. And so had we waited and continued to extend the thing out, whatever the owners decided if we couldn't get a deal, whenever they decided to place a lockout on, and all the key ingredients were there. From the hiring of Bob Batterman, all the way from the way they had structured everything, we always felt like their intention was to lock us out.
"And so as we got down to that point, the week before on the Thursday that we shut it down to the following Friday, nothing really changed. There was nothing that really grew, minus some small details; but the reality was we had worked up to that, and so to decertify we felt like as players to break apart our union was by far our best capability to get back on the field. Because now you're fighting the owners in a litigation battle; it has nothing to do with the union and an employer that they can keep you locked out. We felt like, 'Hey listen, we don't have to be a union, we can fight it as individuals, we can break this thing apart and it will allow us to keep football going. Because there's nothing now causing the owners to keep the lockout; their fighting of it is to say that we are still union, which we're not.' So that was really our decision was to get our players back on the field as fast as possible."
Eisen: "And we're going to get into what the players' end game is through litigation later on in our conversation here. But one thing listening to your response there, and I think if you asked a fan who's involved in a negotiation with his or her boss, would you sue your boss if you knew you didn't have a fear of losing your job, regardless of how the litigation turned out, they'd say 'You know, I might take a crack at suiting my boss,' if that was the situation. But that said, why not another three days, four days, another week? Because when you do see — again you can go back and forth as to what the owners offer, what the players accepted, or what the owners accepted, back and forth — there did seem to be enough in there, and again if it was predicated on numbers that you refused to accept that's one thing, there did seem to be enough in there that was a basis for, 'OK, this is what we now think should be the case in a CBA,' playing off what the owners gave you from what you say last-minute, but there still was something there. Why not another three days, why not another four days, why not another week?"
Saturday: "Again it went back, listen, it took two years to get there. If you can't get a deal done in two years, what's another three days going to mean? And that's why I'm telling you when you got down to the brass tacks of the deal, nothing had changed from the two years ago to where we were that afternoon. And when you looked at the numbers and you looked at all of the things that we're going to have to happen for there to be an agreed upon contract, there wasn't enough in there that I could go back to the men in my locker room and say, 'Hey listen, I support this, I'm behind it, or we're even close.' I had made mention the week before, we weren't close then. And so you go through an entire week again where you really don't have anything exchanged for an entire three or four days, and then at the 11th hour you get this paper with 20 points, and four sub-points per 20 points, we just felt like it's more stalling. And so the best thing for the players to do was say, 'Hey listen, we're decertified, we're no longer a union, we'll have a court date in April so at the latest we know we'll be playing football again.'
"If the courts agree with us, which we feel like they would, football will be played. Now it will be played under whatever system they want it to be played under, but we're willing to take that chance just to play. I didn't feel like as a player our fans would put up with a lockout where we're missing games. I didn't think our players would put up with it, and I didn't think our owners could tolerate it. As I sat in all of those meetings, as you hear everybody's conversation, you realized what we were really going to miss out on, and that's our fans. Those are everybody who pays our check, and to push this out where they don't get football, or they don't get preseason games, or they're worried about seeing the actual games, I didn't feel like was a good bet for us. And so timing, it really had to happen there."
Eisen: "Well, let's get into the state of distrust as well and where it came from. What do you think the owners were delaying? If you spoke another week, what do you think the owners' game-plan was to delay? Where was that taking them in granting another week extension to talk about?"
Saturday: "I think through our discussions, and we didn't have very much owner-to-player discussion. In the entire 15 days or however many days, there were probably a few hours of actual owner-to-player exchanges. And so we felt like from the owners' standpoint, they were just continuing to push us out so as the date gets further out and gets closer to the season. Right now for players, there really wasn't these expectations of being paid or missing games or having to answer questions about missing games. And so we felt like the best time for our game to take a hit was then. And so as we talked about it, we understood, 'Listen, nothing's moving forward.' We never felt like they deterred from their plan of locking us out from when they started — when they hired [Bob] Batterman, the whole TV case which I won't bore you with the details — but everything led up to all of us feeling that's where the distrust came from.
"And if you hear comments like Mark Murphy from the Packers and he's talking about we give retired players too much, we don't give them the incentive to go out and get a job, you can imagine how many times my phone rings when that comment gets laid out. How are you going to sign a deal, tell me what's going to happen with former players? What's going to happen with the rookies? What's going to happen with present-day? All of these things happen and there are all of these fuels that get put out there and get pushed out, and players understood what was at stake. Again I go back to all the time I try to tell fans back at home, because obviously I answer to a lot of those people, is…Indianapolis is my home and we have the Super Bowl coming up; it's a big deal for our city and for where I live, and I wanted the very best for it and not to play football is unacceptable to me. So whatever we had to do, which we felt like decertification was the only way we could get back to football."
Eisen: "And yet with the level of distrust that you're talking about, you still shared a beer with the Commissioner the night before certification."
Saturday: "Infamous beer."
Eisen: "Yes, and I want to talk with you about that, as well as a tweet from the Colts owner Jim Irsay calling out the process about wanting to have more discussion, and all the rest of the end-game that the players are trying to see through their litigation. We're going to put the rest of this conversation on NFL.com, but that's it for our discussion right here on 'NFL Total Access' with Jeff Saturday, who is here for three days. Maybe we'll continue this conversation on the air over the next two shows."
- Rich Eisen