The move by the NFL and the NFL Players Association to agree to federal mediation is a sign that the peacemakers among NFL owners are gaining some power.
“There are a lot of owners who don’t like where this is headed,” an NFL source said Thursday night. “They all understand bargaining and negotiating. But the hard-liners aren’t getting anything done. In fact, the players seem as entrenched and educated as ever. [The players will] probably still fold, but it’s not going to be for months and the owners are realizing that.
“This is not going to be a situation where the players fold in two weeks.”
As a result of that perception, at least five owners have expressed deep reluctance to move forward with a lockout if a deal is not done by March 3. League owners are scheduled to meet March 2-3 outside Washington to presumably work out a new CBA or lock out players for the offseason.
How exactly the owners formally lock out the players is unclear. NFL executive vice president and general counsel Jeff Pash declined to answer that before the Super Bowl. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has twice said, “That’s something we want to keep secret.” Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder said he didn't know the answer.
One owner said prior to the Super Bowl that a lockout, like most actions by the league, requires an approval vote of 24 of the league's 32 owners. If that's the case, nine owners could block any lockout move.
“I don’t know if there are nine owners who are ready to go against the tide that much,” the league source said. “But I think there are a number of owners who are thinking that this will turn out a lot worse than what some other owners think. It’s not going to be easy and, in the end, you could end up doing nothing but losing money instead of gaining it.”
Thus, getting the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service involved is seen as a positive sign by those owners, the source said. There is no guarantee that the process will work because either side can choose not to accept the terms, but the belief is that arguing in front of a third party will help.
One of the issues that makes mediation attractive is even if the two sides work out a deal by late June or early July in order to start the regular season on time, the league understands it will likely lose approximately $1 billion in revenue for the 2011 season. That will be in the form of local sponsorships and other deals. Getting that revenue back might take years.
“If other businesses are smart, they’ll sign up those sponsors for three- or four-year deals and all of a sudden that money is gone,” another league source said. “Right now, the NFL has a lot of momentum with those advertisers. Getting it back isn’t that easy.”
Mediation also might make some owners believe that the players are in a better psychological and financial state to handle a lockout. By voting to get out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2008, the league gave the union tremendous lead time.
“When I talk to retired players about what they went through and to current players, this is as prepared as the players have ever been,” a union source said. “You don’t hear about a lot of players calling into the union office to complain and ask, ‘What’s going on?’ In 2006, we had guys scrambling for answers."
While there have been some players who have gotten bent out of shape about the situation, such as New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie(notes), they are considered the exception this time around.
“Part of what Cromartie is saying makes sense," the union source said. "Both sides are going to be hated if this thing doesn’t get done. But a lot of players looked at what he had to say and were like, ‘Buddy, didn’t you see this coming?’ We’ve been talking about it forever.
“Look, he’s not alone. There are a lot of guys who didn’t save enough money to get through this. We know that. There are a lot of guys with a lot of pressure on them. But those guys don’t get a lot of respect because [the union] told them what was coming. It’s not like before, when a lot of guys were in the dark about what could happen.”
If that fact is as transparent to the owners, getting something done now through mediation might be in their best interests.