A lesson in the definition of "close" in contract negotiations: In March 2006, the NFL owners and players were in midst of a labor battle that now serves as a backdrop for the current collective bargaining agreement negotiations. At one point, the two sides couldn't have been further apart. Negotiations on a CBA extension had broken off and then-NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw sat down with his team of advisors and gave a toast to the uncapped year.
It was a sign that talks had gone nowhere and he'd given up.
Shortly after the toast, Upshaw received a message from then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Within a couple of hours, the two sides were back at the table and an agreement was hammered out within a few days.
That brings us to today, when the owners and the players are again locked in treacherous talks. A request from one side frequently brings a harsh reaction from the other. The drama could hardly be higher. All the while, both sides are trying to manage expectations. The best example of that was Tuesday when the late Upshaw's successor, DeMaurice Smith, told a group of players during a conference call that the sides were still far apart, as first reported by Foxsports.com.
By Thursday, Smith's team and commissioner Roger Goodell's group spent 15 hours talking. The next morning, they returned to talk at 8 a.m. before wrapping up after a couple of hours and deciding to reconvene next week.
If the sides weren't close, why would they talk so much, particularly on the weekend before the Fourth of July?
The reason is that they are down to hammering out specifics, or "line items" if you're in the world of accounting. The owners' side suddenly wants cost credits. The players' side counters with something else equally absurd. The fight over each percentage point is fierce, but for good reason. Right now, each percentage point of the $9.3 billion pie is worth $93 million. By 2015, each percentage point could be worth $150 million or so, and who wouldn't fight over that kind of money?
Because the stakes are so high, don't be surprised if over the next few days one side or the other marches out of the talks and declares, "Let the courts rule and we'll see what happens."
At that point, you can cue the apocalyptic talk about how there will be no training camp and preseason, regular season games will be lost, the NFL as we know it will be destroyed and Western Civilization swallowed up by communism.
Sorry, I'm missing Glenn Beck already.
Just understand that covering the day-to-day and hour-to-hour movements of a negotiation is like following a bipolar personality. At one moment, everything is great. At the next, everything is about to crash and burn.
Also understand this: There is a deadline out there, even if it's hard to pinpoint. By about July 15, the chance of starting training camp and the preseason on time starts to diminish. That means lost money. Furthermore, the more the owners waste time by pushing what the players perceive to be unrealistic terms, the closer and closer it gets to Sept. 12, when the owners will likely no longer be able to fight the players on decertification. That will force the end of the lockout and get the sides back into court, where the owners know they eventually would get crushed.
In other words, the owners can only demand so much right now while the players wait to get paid because both sides know how close the owners are to losing leverage. This is why the owners regularly need to be reminded of the presence of attorneys Jeff Kessler and Jim Quinn for the players. Kessler and Quinn are more than happy to guide the players into an antitrust lawsuit because they know how easy it will be to win. Fact is, NFL attorney Paul Clement basically admitted this when he desperately tried to argue at the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that the NFL should be allowed to lock out the players for a full year, rather than just until September.
Clement may be brilliant, but that part of his argument was laughable to the three-judge panel. Judge Steven Colloton, a supposedly conservative judge on the panel who has already sided with the owners on the lockout for now, repeatedly asked Clement why the league should be allowed that latitude when the previous CBA allowed the players the right to decertify six months after it expired on March 12 once extension talks broke down.
It's fair to say Colloton was not moved by Clement's answer.
Negotiations at the moment are generally positive, if for no other reason than they are happening. Sure, each side may get ticked off at the other over each request. That's business. After they get done being angry, they go onto the next issue. At some point, the whole thing could get tense enough that it will fall apart. Smith and the players walked once already. It won't be so hard to do it again.
And if it comes to that, Smith could go to a restaurant with Kessler and Quinn and make a toast to the coming lawsuit … only to get a desperate phone call from Goodell asking to get back together.
As 2006 proved, don't toast too soon.
- Gene Upshaw