The NFL Players Association got a huge victory Tuesday, as U.S. District Court Judge David Doty issued a ruling that will likely prevent owners from accessing the television payments that would have helped fund a potential lockout. Forty-eight hours before the current collective bargaining agreement was due to expire, union officials celebrated the dramatic turn of events at a downtown Washington establishment.
We can only hope that the real winners will be the millions of fans whose devotion funds the exceptionally large pile of loot over which these two factions are fighting.
Doty's ruling, while an obvious boon to the NFLPA's cause, wasn't so much a smackdown of the owners' position as it was a blow for labor peace. If the owners react to this judicial setback in a rational manner, they'll lose their hardline bluster and come back to the bargaining table with a renewed sense of compromise.
Conversely, once Tuesday night's buzz wears off, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and his fellow negotiators should resist the temptation to gloat and instead push for a CBA that bridges the philosophical gap between the two parties.
If those reasonable and logical reactions occur when the two sides meet on Wednesday, I believe we'll soon have an announcement from the camps that they've agreed to a short-term extension of the current CBA beyond March 3 – in the expectation of finalizing a deal over the next week or two.
In other words, after more than a year of rancorous rhetoric and the sense that a lockout was inevitable, we could have peace, love and harmony between players and owners by the end of the month, and well in advance of next month's NFL draft. Free agency, minicamps, OTAs, training camp – it could all play out like a typical offseason, with fantasy drafts occurring right on schedule.
That's how much power Doty's ruling may have packed.
Until Tuesday I'd been convinced, as had most of the players and union officials to whom I speak regularly, that a lockout was coming. I expressed my pessimism again last week from the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, and within 24 hours two people familiar with the recent negotiating sessions being conducted in the presence of a federal mediator told me my feelings that a lockout was inevitable were absolutely warranted.
My belief was that the owners were simply going through the motions as the deadline neared and were hell-bent on locking out the players – because they felt they were in a financial position to do so.
Last September, when I laid out the contentious labor landscape for football fans, I underscored the importance of the television contracts that would allow owners to receive advances of up to $4 billion in revenues in the event of a work stoppage. I also pointed out that Smith, a trial lawyer, had spearheaded the filing of a legal complaint designed to cut off this cash flow – with the eventual expectation of bringing the case to Doty upon appeal. The owners had previously accused Doty of being biased in favor of union interests and tried unsuccessfully to get his jurisdiction over the CBA revoked, and Smith surmised that any excuse to bring an issue before him could at least be construed as advantageous for the NFLPA.
That said, I don't believe Doty's ruling on Tuesday was radical in its interpretation or especially biased: He agreed with the NFLPA's position that the owners, in negotiating their current TV contracts, had failed to maximize revenues by insisting upon clauses which kept cash coming in during a work stoppage (against future credits for games lost). In other words, the value of those clauses was realized only by the owners and not by their partners, the NFLPA members, who receive a large percentage of the TV money. That makes sense to me.
The key word here is partners – if the owners, in the wake of Doty's ruling, begin treating the players as partners and resume negotiations with that principle in mind, I think they'll find that substantial progress in a relatively short period is possible.
That means that hardliners like Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, whose condescending statements at the bargaining table riled Peyton Manning(notes) and other players last month, should take a backseat to more moderate voices among the ranks, including commissioner Roger Goodell's. And union negotiators should calmly state their side's case without becoming increasingly bold in the wake of Doty's decision.
If that happens, I think all parties can have their needs addressed. The owners can convince the union to give them more money off the top of the revenue stream before splitting it up as investment expenses, though that amount surely won't approach the extra $1 billion a year they've been demanding. The players can continue to haul in the type of salaries and benefits they've enjoyed since the CBA extension the two sides signed in 2006. The medical needs of retired players can be better addressed by both sides, and there can be overall improvements in player safety and health care.
Best of all, this can be achieved in relatively painless fashion via creative ways of growing the overall pie. Though the proposed 18-game season has met with massive resistance from players and has received only lukewarm support from fans, there are other means of increasing revenues. Adding a bye week to the season, expanding the playoff field, putting a team (or teams) in Los Angeles and instituting a rookie wage scale are among those methods, and if negotiations continue – as I hope they will – I'll soon be spelling some of them out in greater detail.
Though we hear a lot about unity among owners, I believe some are more eager to make a deal than others, and I think those owners will be emboldened in the wake of Doty's ruling. Faced with huge mortgage payments on recently constructed stadiums – and, with the union poised to decertify barring the absence of a new CBA (or an extension in the reasonable hope of forging one), the potential for messy, prolonged and expensive antitrust lawsuits that could result in huge damages against the league – some owners may tell hawks like Richardson, "We tried to do it your way, and now we've got a problem. It's time for a new approach."
Smith, meanwhile, is in a much better position than he was a day ago. As the successor to longtime NFLPA leader Gene Upshaw, Smith was determined not to cave to owners' threats and be perceived by constituents and outsiders alike as a lightweight who got overpowered by his adversaries. Giving in to the owners' dramatic demands because he feared a lockout would have made him appear weak, and I don't think he would have considered doing so for a minute.
Now, however, Smith can negotiate a deal that gives the owners at least some of what they want without looking like he lost. Since it was Smith who signed off on the strategy to mount a legal challenge to the owners' TV contracts – and because that plan paid off handsomely just as things looked the most bleak for the union – he can respond to the owners' sudden desire to settle this mess by embracing the spirit of compromise and helping to hammer out a new deal.
If that happens, Smith can claim victory, and no one will question him. Instead, he'll be the union leader who helped save football for the fans. That, of course, will be a triumph we can all celebrate.