WASHINGTON – NFL commissioner Roger Goodell emerged from the National Mediation and Conciliation Services building on Wednesday night looking worn out.
His tie loosened and his hair unusually out of place, Goodell looked like a man who is being pulled in a bunch of directions.
That's exactly what's going on.
After more than two years of talking about the collective bargaining agreement, Goodell is hearing a lot of messages from a lot of people in his camp. There are some who want a resolution. Others want to continue fighting the union.
About the only thing that NFL owners seem unified by is that they don't want to deal with federal judge David Doty anymore. Doty's ruling Tuesday that took away the owners' ability to get "lockout insurance" in the form of advanced payments on the NFL television contracts, was unilaterally seen by owners as a sign that they will never get a fair shake in Doty's court, which oversees labor issues for the NFL.
That is why, despite the best efforts of Goodell, attorneys Jeff Pash and Bob Batterman, the 10 owners on the NFL management council executive committee and the NFL Players Association are not expected to get a deal done before the 11:59 ET deadline Thursday night.
"Unless you see some kind of significant shift, I think you're going to see us play this out," one owner said Wednesday afternoon in Chantilly, Va., where the owners held a three-hour briefing on the state of the negotiations.
"You think we were surprised by what Doty did?" the owner said with more than a touch of frustration. "We expected that. That's how everything has gone with him. We never win a decision with him. Enough is enough."
During the three-hour briefing, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said the owners from each team in the league were allowed time to express how they felt about the state of negotiations. While most owners tried to stay along the party line, there was a clear feeling that solidarity that had marked the owners before was fading.
"The rhetoric and the tone wasn't as hostile as before," another owner said. "I think there's a realization that what we're facing is going to be very difficult. This is going to be really unpleasant for everybody."
Or as Irsay put it: "In business, you get used to that."
The owners' get-together came after Goodell, Pash, Batterman and 10 owners spent the morning meeting about 25 miles away with the union and federal mediator George Cohen. After the briefing in Virginia, Goodell held another meeting with the owners on the executive committee before shuttling back to D.C. for the next meeting with Cohen. Joining Goodell in the night meeting were Pash, Batterman, New York Giants owner John Mara and Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy.
While Mara and Murphy are seen as moderates among the owners, that's hardly an indication of any stance. As for the meeting with Cohen, Pash said cryptically that the league was only there "to seek some direction."
By Thursday at 5 p.m., the NFLPA is expected to file paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board in an attempt to decertify the union. The NFL has already filed paperwork with the NLRB saying that an attempt to decertify is a "sham," although the NLRB technically can't block such a move.
The decertified players are then expected to file a class-action lawsuit against the NFL, depending on what the league does. If the league locks out the players, the players will contend that is illegal. If the NFL tries to institute a system of rules regarding free agency and the salary cap, the players will likely sue claiming that those rules are illegal as restraints of trade.
Any way you examine the situation, the immediate future is going to be run by lawyers, not by players and owners.
"You're going to have an appeal on Doty's latest decision, a fight over the union's ability to decertify and lawsuits," one source said. "It's the kind of stuff that drives everybody crazy because you have no idea when things are going to be decided or what the decisions could look like."
Most of all, that everybody figures to include the millions of fans who normally look forward to a couple of things this time of year: start of free agency and the NFL draft. For now, the free agency part of that is gone. If this issue extends deep into the season, the draft will largely be a bust because it will be hard for rookie players to have an impact without much of an offseason in which to practice.
And if that's how this ends up going, Goodell is going to look even worse than he did Wednesday night.