Time to bench Richardson from bargaining game

I have a Valentine’s Day message for Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, and I’m not quite sure how to deliver it while honoring the spirit of the holiday. Then again, as my colleague Jason Cole reported Sunday, Richardson could probably use some lessons on comportment and politesse, so I’m going to go ahead and spit it out bluntly.

Hey, Grumpy Grumplestein – why the long face? And is there any way we can get you to step away from the increasingly rancorous negotiating sessions between the owners and the NFL Players Association in the hope of getting a deal done sometime this calendar year?

Richardson, as Cole reported, copped a condescending attitude toward star quarterbacks Peyton Manning(notes) and Drew Brees(notes) in a Feb. 5 bargaining session in Dallas – the day before Super Bowl XLV. I’ve since spoken with two people who witnessed the interaction and gotten a more detailed report of what went down.

Among other things, Richardson became so angry at Sean Morey(notes) after the recently retired player cited a slew of statistics on player safety and average career length that the Panthers’ owner snapped, “You guys made so much [expletive] money – if you played three years in the NFL, you should own your own [expletive] team.”

At that point, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and several of Richardson’s fellow owners cringed, league representatives suggested that the two sides take a break.

“It was bad from the start,” said one player who attended the session. “[Richardson] opened the meeting by describing how he was almost annoyed how we would ask for that meeting on their busiest weekend of the year. And I’m thinking, ‘Your team finished 2-14. You shouldn’t be that busy. Why are you worrying about how busy you are during Super Bowl weekend?’ ”

If it seems like I’m being harsh toward Richardson, a former NFL player who parlayed his brief stint with the Baltimore Colts into buying a Hardee’s franchise and ultimately got rich via his Spartan Foods restaurant empire, let’s put this in perspective. I have consistently rated him near the top of my annual NFL owner rankings, and I admire his business sense, work ethic and aggressive attempts to increase revenue. I’m also thrilled that the 74-year-old Richardson got a new lease on life a little more than two years ago when, unexpectedly, he received a heart transplant that reversed a seemingly dire condition.

What I can’t understand is why a man who should be so happy to be among us would resist the compulsion to behave like Jimmy Stewart at the climax of "It’s A Wonderful Life" and instead act like the salty neighbor who screams at kids for allowing their football to bounce upon his lawn.

Or, to put it another way: If your heart were rapidly failing and you suddenly were granted a chance to return to health, would you a) go to work in your pajamas, hand hundred-dollar bills to strangers and dole out random hugs to supermarket clerks, or b) fire your sons and talk smack to two of the NFL’s most popular and accomplished players?

The current dispute between the owners and players is a complicated matter, and tempers sometimes flare in negotiating sessions. As I told you back in September, Richardson has been an impassioned advocate to his fellow owners about the need to secure a more favorable collective bargaining agreement than the one he helped railroad through in 2006, and I’m sure he feels passionately about his position.

But at this point Richardson’s role as the co-chair of the league’s negotiating committee has become an impediment to potential labor peace, which means one of two things: Either the owners have no intention of trying to strike a deal before the March 4 expiration of the current CBA and are hell-bent on a lockout (or, possibly, claiming an impasse in negotiations and imposing the terms of a “last, best offer” while daring the players to strike) or Richardson needs to go.

As one perennial Pro Bowl player told me Monday morning, “When the owners want to get serious, they just need to get him out of the room – because we’ll never get a deal done with him in there. It’s not professional, and it’s not good business.”

If nothing else, it would behoove the owners to encourage Richardson to take a leave of absence for the next several bargaining sessions, if and when they occur, because he’s not helping their cause. By antagonizing Manning, a superstar who has no formal union role and might be among those best served by remaining low-key during a potential work stoppage, Richardson may have done the NFLPA an incredible service. His behavior was more than a public-relations nightmare; it may have unleashed the wrath of one of the sports world’s most exacting and powerful leaders.

Let’s think about this for a minute: Manning and Brees are among the best in the world at what they do, and their success is built upon preparation, work ethic, drive and intensity. Richardson, for all his financial accomplishments in the food-services industry, is currently the worst at what he does – at least according to last season’s NFL standings.

Yet when Manning had the temerity to challenge the owners’ insistence upon taking another $1 billion annually off the top before splitting up revenues, Richardson treated the Colts’ quarterback like a dimwitted child. After Manning questioned the financial urgency of the owners’ request in the absence of documentation – a common union refrain – Richardson became agitated and dismissive while lecturing the player about the risks that their employers assume.

“He was condescending to Peyton,” said one player who was at the meeting. “He tried to talk about P&L [profit and loss] statements and all these other risks that the owners assume, as if Peyton didn’t know anything. Drew interrupted and said, ‘All we’re doing is just asking you to show us your books. We want to negotiate in good faith.’”

Said another player who was present: “We were so pissed. Peyton was breathing heavily, and some of us were about ready to jump across the table.”

Manning kept his cool, and Morey, the former Arizona Cardinals special teams standout who has been among the leading proponents of the need for the NFL’s increased attention to head trauma issues, began challenging Richardson by citing health and safety concerns as an example of the risks players assumed.

As Richardson gave his salty reply, witnesses said, other owners and Goodell became visibly uncomfortable, and someone suggested that the two sides take a break. Shortly thereafter, several owners (including the Patriots’ Robert Kraft, the Giants’ John Mara and the Chiefs’ Clark Hunt) apologized to the players who were present, assuring them that they respect the union’s position. Richardson, said one player, apologized to Manning for having lost his cool.

If Richardson’s short temper was the only issue at hand, this wouldn’t be a big deal. The problem is that his attitude is emblematic of something the players consider far more troubling – a disrespectful and hostile attempt to force an employer-friendly deal down their throats and to show them, beyond a reasonable doubt, who’s boss.

I’ll be examining the intricacies of the labor stare down in the weeks (and, I fear, months) to come, and for now I’ll spare you many of my thoughts pertaining to this financial fight between very well-off employees and extremely rich owners. I understand that most fans aren’t especially interested in taking sides – they just want the players and owners to reach an agreement and get back to the business of playing football, as quickly as possible.

However, those who cast this dispute as a skirmish between two factions that deserve an equal share of the blame are delusional. The players aren’t forcing this issue – they’ve publicly stated a willingness to continue to play under the terms of the soon-to-be expiring CBA, and I believe that they don’t want a work stoppage.

The owners, conversely, are behaving in a way that suggests they’re prepared to lock out the players unless a deal is reached in the next two-and-a-half weeks – and it’s tough to make the case that they’re working aggressively to come to an agreement before that deadline.

For one thing, rather than counter the union’s latest offer during a meeting last week, the owners reportedly canceled a session scheduled for the following day, apparently because they were so appalled by the proposal. On Monday, the NFL filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that the union has refused to bargain in good faith with the intention of decertifying and filing an antitrust lawsuit. This assertion seems dubious, at best, given the recent actions by each camp.

Throw in the presence on the NFL’s side of the table of outside labor lawyer Bob Batterman, regarded as the architect of the NHL lockout that caused that cancellation of the 2004-05 season, and the players have received a clear message about where things are headed.

The players, on one hand, are told that they are “partners” who need to help share the owners’ investment and development costs to help sustain and grow the business. Yet when they’ve asked for proof or further explanations, as Manning attempted to do in Dallas, they are met by condescension and irritability – chiefly from Richardson, the man who by all rights should be the most upbeat and cheery person in the room.

Look, it’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m willing to cut Richardson a break. Maybe it hasn’t dawned on him that there’s a distinction between dealing with proud, accomplished athletes and fast-food employees.

I also suspect that because Richardson was instrumental in helping convince his fellow owners that the ’06 CBA extension was necessary – a move that proved to be unpopular, given the unanimous vote in 2009 to opt out of the deal two years early – he’s trying to make it up to them by being a hard-liner and demonstrating his commitment to winning back as many union concessions as possible.

So I’ll try to cut him some slack – but I also think Richardson needs to step back, count his blessings and give up his spot at the table to one of his peers who is more adept at keeping his cool.

If that doesn’t happen, I have another suggestion: The union should fight fiery temper with fiery temper and insist that one of Richardson’s players is present for every remaining session.

Yo, Steve Smith – How would you like a seat at the bargaining table?