Since the beginning of the current labor fight, it's been the NFL's contention that negotiation, not litigation, was the only way for the owners and players to sign a new collective bargaining agreement. Of course, it's rather hypocritical for the owners to say that when they locked the players out of the league in March, but it is true that the NFLPA and the players have generally preferred litigation as a bargaining chip, and for one good reason: From the American Needle case to Susan Richard Nelson's anti-lockout district court ruling, to the lockout insurance decision that could still cost the owners millions or billions of dollars, the players have generally taken the owners to the cleaners in court.
However, you'd sort of expect that if that changed, the players might adopt a more conciliatory tone. Future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner recently opined that the current players would do well to negotiate more, a take that did not go over well with current player rep and Shutdown Corner favorite Chester Pitts. However, while Pitts may believe that the labor fight is a marathon and not a sprint (and he's told me as much), Warner does have a valid point — as we get closer to a drop-dead timeline for a full season, you could see players getting a bit uncomfortable about the whole idea of being locked out.
Philadelphia Eagles tight end Brent Celek recently went on Philly radio station WIP and spoke with hosts Howard Eskin and Ike Reese about recent matters. Having recently talked to NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith about the labor situation, Celek sounded like a man who sees this battle as far from over — and players mouthing off in the media about different things doesn't help, in Celek's mind.
"I talked to De Smith and I pretty much told him my concerns," he said. "You know the way that everything was getting out in the media and what not. We talked it over and I kind of understand where he is coming from. It's going to be a little bit of a fight. This thing is not going to happen easy. We as players are just going to have to stick together. I think when you see in the media that some of the guys are fraying off and getting mad at the whole situation. I think as a group it just makes us look even worse."
I recently asked Pitts why the players hadn't been negotiating recently outside of court-ordered sessions (at least, not until this week's three-day session in Chicago), and Pitts basically told me that there was too much bad blood regarding proposals the players had made before the lockout. For Celek, the answers are less clear — it may be that some players would like to see more of a "good faith" effort to bring the two sides closer together.
"I think the reason why they are not is because of the legal process," Celek said. "I don't think either side is going to until this ruling. Once this ruling happens and then you know they have to get back at it. I'm with you I think they should be doing it now, but I'm not there every single day so I don't know exactly everything that is going on."
And when asked whether negotiation was better than litigation, Celek was more clear in his response. "I think so. It's always better to do that. I mean court should be the last-case scenario in any battle, so the fact that we have to go there is not good. Like I always have said, it's not good for the fans more than anybody."
This week's negotiations seemed to be a sign that everyone is starting to realize what's at stake here, and that with upcoming rulings hanging over the heads of those representing both sides, everybody has a lot to lose. The current players have been a united voice for the most part, but as this goes on and things become more fractions, Smith and the NFLPA will have a slightly tougher battle keeping everyone on point. And when that happens, negotiation may indeed be the best tactic for the players.
Which is, in the end, what the owners expected all along.