After a long series of failed negotiations, court cases, long stretches without reasonable talks (and a few really stupid comments from Roger Goodell), it appears that the owners and players are finally engaging in discussions that could bear fruit in the form of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and possibly a full 2011 NFL season. Talks between the two sides in Chicago last week turned into more talks in New York this week, with owners and player reps involved. The most notable absences in these talks were the lawyers on either side — not to insinuate that lawyers in and of themselves were preventing a successful end to this process, but the sooner this becomes about the good of the game on both sides, the better.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has been one of the more prominent voices espousing this notion in recent weeks; he's been a leading advocate of the "let's get the lawyers out of the room and talk" idea, and he may be the bridge between the hawks and doves in this ongoing battle, in the same way that Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney was in 2006, the last time a new CBA was signed.
Hanging over both sides is the statement made by Eighth Circuit Court Judge Kermit Bye at the conclusion of last Friday's oral arguments in the Brady v. NFL antitrust suit. Much like Judge David Doty did 20 years ago in the hope of jump-starting what became the first real forays into NFL free agency, Bye told the owners and players that the Court would take reasonable time in deliberating, and then come back with a ruling that neither side would like. Thus, it's in everyone's best interests to work things out.
Speaking at the Patriots' "Community MVP" event on Thursday, Kraft told the local media that while there's some hope and things are moving forward, there's a way to go. "We're making progress, but there is a lot of work to be done," he said. "This is a very hard deal, with all the different variables in the end. The fact that principals who are going to be sitting down from one other 5 years, 10 years from now are talking about the problems is a positive thing. But there is a lot of hard work still to be done. The good news is we're talking."
One encouraging point about Kraft's involvement in the talks is that he seems to understand the urgency beyond mere lip service. "For me, there has always been a sense of urgency because we have the greatest game in America, and we have a lot of people depending on this game, not just people working in this building -- service people, support people," he said. "I think on Sundays, it's part of Americana. People plan their day. We have to be very careful that we continue to enhance it. I can't speak for other people's comments, but I know I personally have been very serious and I know a number of other owners involved here who have been serious, and the Commissioner has. I think the fact we're continuing to talk is a very positive sign."
In the past, I have said that if you want football in 2011, you'd better root for the players to win all the battles, because they're the only ones who really get how important it is for a full season to be played this year. More reasonable owners like Kraft have me thinking that as both sides realize what's at risk in the short- and long-term, more positive steps will be taken toward an agreement everyone can live with.