The NFL labor landscape was 15 minutes away from official implosion Friday when union leader DeMaurice Smith emerged from Federal Mediation Conciliation Service headquarters in Washington D.C. and addressed a swarm of reporters.
Standing on the corner of 21st and K Street, the NFL Players Association's executive director made a brief, forceful statement that delivered one final dare to the league's owners: Agree to open your books within the quarter hour, or prepare for a battle royale.
Given that Smith surely understood there was almost no chance of the owners accepting those terms, his pronouncement was quickly portrayed as a public relations move designed to cast the union as the side which made the last offer before talks broke down and decertification ensued. And while there may have been an element of truth in that thinking, most observers missed the point.
What Smith was really doing was flexing his and his membership's collective might – and, after having felt disrespected and jerked around by owners throughout the bargaining process, making a statement to his adversaries that the players would no longer be pushed around.
"It was our way of telling the fans that we did everything we could – and it was a message to the league that we'd had enough," said George Atallah, the NFLPA's assistant executive director of external affairs, in a telephone interview shortly after the union decertified. "It was a message that we had had enough of the deception and the disrespect – and the control."
That's the type of charged statement which you can expect to see in abundance, from both sides, as we head into the next stage of this nasty dispute: Union decertification and the accompanying antitrust lawsuit the NFLPA filed Friday; the official end of the collective bargaining agreement; and an attempted lockout (or other NFL response) to follow, with a whole lot of litigation going on for the foreseeable future.
It's tempting for frustrated NFL fans to tune all of it out and boil down the clash to its core issue. Obviously, this is a fight over money, and the inability of the owners and the NFLPA to agree on how to divvy up the $9 billion annual economic pie is the main reason they're in this mess.
Yet from the players' perspective, control is very much at the heart of this fight, and it has been since the owners unanimously voted to opt out of the CBA in 2008, a mere two years after they'd agreed to an extension.
From that point on, owners embarked upon a not-so-subtle strategy to "take back our league," as enunciated by the Carolina Panthers' Jerry Richardson to his peers last March. They were fully prepared to lock out the players until a decision by U.S. District Court Judge David Doty imperiled the uninterrupted television payments on which they'd been counting derailed their plans.
That was last Tuesday, two days before the CBA was set to expire. And while Doty's ruling motivated the owners to try to cut a deal – and the union twice agreed to short-term extensions in an effort to come to terms – Smith and his fellow negotiators continued to chafe over what they believed was a pattern of disrespect from the other side.
First, there was Richardson's condescending treatment of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes), former NFL player Sean Morey(notes) and other union negotiators during a Feb. 5 bargaining session. Shortly thereafter, owners abruptly canceled a planned five-hour bargaining session, apparently because they were angry over the union's characterization of a hypothetical economic model.
Even after federal mediator George Cohen began presiding over the sessions, union negotiators thought they were being shined on by the league, as most or all of the owners were absent from the bulk of the meetings. Finally, last Wednesday – the day after Doty's decision – 10 executives from the league's labor management committee showed up for the talks at the FMCS building. They left to join the rest of the league's owners at a meeting 25 miles away in Chantilly, Va., and Smith and other union negotiators were under the impression that those owners would return for the next round of discussions.
Instead, the union leaders learned that those owners, including the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones and the New England Patriots' Robert Kraft, had flown home on private planes, leaving only two members of the league's labor committee (New York Giants owner John Mara and Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy) to attend Thursday's crucial session.
Even after negotiating a pair of extensions, the league's negotiating team showed up this past Monday without displaying a sense of urgency. On Thursday afternoon – with Friday's deadline looming – Smith and other union negotiators left the FMCS building and walked back to NFLPA headquarters. They were told by Cohen to expect a call before 4:30 p.m., at which point they'd be summoned to return for another session of talks.
The union officials waited as 4:30 arrived, then 5, but the call never came. Finally, Atallah learned via a reporter's post on Twitter that the owners who'd been in attendance were on a conference call with the rest of the league's owners.
Said Atallah: "I turned to De and said, 'Oh, that's funny – we were supposed to be over there right now. "He said, 'Are you serious?' At 6:15 we called the mediator's office, and he told us, 'Well, they're packing up to go, so we're not doing anything tonight.' And then we heard they all went to dinner."
At that point, Smith and his lieutenants were at their breaking point. They showed up Friday fully steeled for decertification and the strife that would follow, and when the owners made an offer that was significantly better than the ones they'd made previously, the union was already skeptical.
Still, after receiving the offer at 1 p.m. Eastern time, the NFLPA prepared a counter proposal as the deadline approached. In receiving permission to decertify during votes with individual teams over the past eight months, the union had stated it would do so no later than eight hours before the CBA's expiration – meaning it had to initiate the action by 4 p.m. The league, Atallah said, was aware of this, but commissioner Roger Goodell and his fellow negotiators showed up 20 minutes late to a scheduled 3:30 meeting.
By then, the NFLPA had secured a one-hour extension via the 32 teams' player representatives, and Smith didn't bother presenting the counter-offer. Instead, he said the union would forestall its decertification plans and agree to another short-term extension only if the owners agreed to provide 10 years' worth of audited financial statements – something they had forcefully resisted throughout the week.
It was under that backdrop that Smith went outside and enunciated that stance to reporters, then walked back to the NFLPA's offices to see if the owners would respond within the next 15 minutes. They didn't – and the union decertified at 5:02 p.m.
So now it's a legal matter, and we'll find out over the coming months whether Smith's power play was inspired or ill-advised. As the situation plays out, we'll hear all sorts of charges and accusations about which side made what proposal, which negotiators were sincere and which ones were unreasonable, and who deserves the bulk of the blame. Having communicated with people in each camp on Friday, I'm still totally confused about many elements of the owners' final offer and why it took so long for it to be presented.
I can't give you an informed economic breakdown – yet – but I can tell you that, having spoken to numerous players with high-level union involvement over the past several weeks, this wasn't just a scrum over money. For the players, things got personal and stayed that way, and ultimately Smith and his members did what proud athletes usually do when they feel they've been threatened, disrespected and treated dismissively: They stood tall, puffed out their chests and got ready to rumble.
"Players made every effort to engage in a business process," Atallah said Friday. "The only thing they asked for was respect. They understand their business and they wanted to be treated like partners. It's obvious that never happened. It's obvious that was never in [the owners'] plans. They didn't treat us like businessmen."
That's because, for the owners, it wasn't just about money – it was about power and control. On Friday, Smith and the players essentially declared their independence and declared their willingness to throw down, one legal brief at a time.
- NFL Players Association