As we say "peace out" to an NFL labor war that filled the 2011 offseason with harsh rhetoric, bitter accusations and more truth-stretching than a Rupert Murdoch editorial meeting, it's time for players and owners to lay down their arms – and for the rest of us to get past our post-traumatic stress in short order.
Though at times the fight to split up the league's multi-billion-dollar annual revenue stream seemed as gnarly as Harry Potter vs. Voldemort, this is not a children's story, even if some of the principles had a knack for acting like kids. Now, the NFL will once again attempt to pass itself off as one, big, happy, wealthy family, and the transition may seem awkward and abrupt.
So the question for fans and football columnists alike is this: Now that the owners will lift the lockout, can we unlock our hearts and forgive the transgressors who got us all hot and bothered before and during the work stoppage?
In some cases, it won't be easy. However, because I consider myself the ultimate team player – or, more realistically, a guy with an increasingly lousy short-term memory who believes it's healthier to let go of his anger – I'm all about absolution as the football world returns to normal.
That's good news for the following folks:
• Jerry Richardson: Yes, the Carolina Panthers' owner was a divisive force last February, when his combative, condescending behavior toward Peyton Manning(notes) and retired special-teamer Sean Morey(notes) in negotiating sessions caused me to nickname him "Grumpy Grumplestein". But Richardson, to his credit, tempered his 'tude, became a regular presence as the talks turned fruitful in the spring and summer, and helped hammer out a deal that each side could stomach. As one of the owners instrumental in pushing through the '06 CBA extension that many of his peers quickly came to view as undesirable, Richardson had a vested interest in making it right this time, and he delivered. For what it's worth, there was plenty of arrogance emanating from ownership circles back in March, but that disappeared after the union leaders and Brady et al antitrust lawsuit plaintiffs returned to the table for settlement discussions.
• Jim Harbaugh: When I interviewed the San Francisco 49ers' newly hired coach at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February, he told me he expected players and owners to solve their differences without a work stoppage, and I heard harps play and angels sing in the background. Yeah, he was doing the Pollyanna thing, and also failing to confront the fact that a prolonged lockout would hurt his team more than others. Then again, I've known Harbaugh for years, and that relentless optimism is one of the qualities I enjoy most about him. Besides, as a Cal alum, how can I be mad at Harbaugh after he decided to trade in his Cardinal for cherry red last January?
• Michael Silver:. Speaking of undue optimism, yeah, I was prematurely sold on a settlement on at least one occasion, and possibly a couple of others. I blame my sources for their undue optimism, obviously.
• The owners: U.S. District Court Judge David Doty's ruling in early March was a scathing indictment of their pre-lockout behavior. Rather than attempting to maximize their TV deals, the owners pushed for extensions with several networks that included clauses allowing them to amass an uninterrupted stream of cash during a potential work stoppage, essentially creating a "lockout insurance fund" to the direct detriment of their supposed business partners. Not cool – but, starting right now, not something on which I plan to dwell. Also, the owners are forgiven for crying poor while refusing to open their books. To their credit, they basically followed my suggestion and paid a tax (in the form of a slightly sweeter deal for the players) for keeping them closed.
• The NFL Network: As the lockout approached, I feared the worst about the league-owned broadcast arm, assuming that players would either be banned from its airwaves or avoid appearing on the channel of their own volition. I even compared the NFLN to Pravda, the former Soviet Union news agency, once or twice, though purely for comedic purposes. As the labor battle played out, however, I was pleasantly surprised: Propaganda was absent, and things were as close to business-as-usual as any viewer could have hoped. This is especially refreshing given the absurdity with which the NBA has handled its lockout, with players expunged from team websites and other draconian moves implemented. My favorite example occurred last Friday at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship in Lake Tahoe earlier this month. Grant Napear, the Sacramento Kings' talented play-by-play announcer, was sitting at a table on the driving range doing interviews for KHTK-AM, the station that pays him to host an afternoon-drive-time sports talk show. Yet Napear, when visiting with former Notre Dame coach and current TV analyst Digger Phelps, couldn't even mention the name of Jimmer Fredette, the former BYU star the Kings landed on draft day. Meanwhile Fredette sat less than 10 feet away, at the next table, doing an interview with the host of a show in another market. Napear had been told by the Kings, as per the NBA office's instructions, that he is prohibited from uttering the name of any player on the Kings' roster, even though the Kings have no stake in his KHTK deal. So, the town is going Jimmer-crazy, and he's a non-person on the most significant show in town. No Jimmer! I'm sure the station is thrilled.
• The NFL Players Association: When the union decided not to picket, counter-program or encourage prominent rookies to stay away from the draft, I thought DeMaurice Smith and his lieutenants wimped out of a worthy clash and missed a great opportunity to draw attention to the most obvious of antitrust affronts. I got over it, partly because I got to watch the draft in Larry Fitzgerald's(notes) off-the-hook, open-air living room. Besides, if a longtime rabble-rouser like former Minnesota Vikings tight end and NFLPA executive committee member Steve Jordan can suck it up and be part of the spectacle, I suppose I'm screaming into the wind.
DeMaurice Smith (left) and Roger Goodell can finally laugh after months of wrangling.
• Roger Goodell and De Smith: I had high hopes for the NFL commissioner and the NFLPA executive director, and if they'd gotten a deal done before the previous CBA expired they'd have been hailed as heroes. Then, suddenly, Goodell was getting smacked around like a piñata, while Smith was derided by one irate owner as being akin to Goodell's "psycho girlfriend". Smith handled it well, laughing heartily about the diss the next time I saw him in person. He then went on to question whether the NFLPA would be a union again. (Hey, you can't spell decertify without the De.) In the end, each man proved to be resilient and reasonable – and committed to finding common ground.
• Frustrated fans (and amateur economists): All you folks who informed me that I don't understand capitalism, and/or called me a commie, were undoubtedly thrilled by my column comparing the owners to Politburo bosses. I might have used a bit of hyperbole for effect, but I stand by my basic premise that owning an NFL team is the least risky endeavor in American society. That said, econ class is over, and I'm not mad at any of you for disagreeing – not even you knee-jerk management apologists on the right side of the auditorium.
• The owners and players who took the fans for granted: Yep, they gambled that you'd come running back to them once the labor dispute was settled, and I believe they were correct in that assessment. And I'm cool with that, just as I'm OK with the fans for not lashing out and/or tuning out en masse as a means of displaying their displeasure. To borrow from the great philosopher Bill Belichick, it is what it is.
• Tom Brady(notes), Peyton Manning and Drew Brees(notes): When talks were stalled, I called on the three superstar quarterbacks and antitrust-lawsuit plaintiffs to pull the ultimate power play and try to spearhead a settlement on their own. Stunningly, they ignored my advice, but it all worked out in the end. In fairness, these dudes are pretty shrewd when it comes to executing game plans.
• The rank-and-file: After U.S. District Court Judge Susan R. Nelson issued an injunction ending the lockout in April, I called upon players to show up at their respective team facilities and insist upon participating in all normal offseason training activities as a means of drawing attention to their "Let Us Play" mantra. Not too many turned out, and those who did were way too polite for my tastes. In fairness, the coaches (like everyone else at the team facilities who wasn't an owner) were thrilled to have the players back, so there wasn't a whole lot of contentiousness in the air. The players missed an opportunity, but I'm moving forward.
• Those owners who held themselves above the law: When a federal judge declares that the lockout is over, the normal reaction is to obey the court order – unless you're a really, really rich guy who spends Sundays in luxury boxes. I don't want to forgive the owners for their deliberate, disrespectful behavior in the days before Nelson's order was stayed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and I think they were being terrible role models, but I'll swallow hard and chalk it up to an instant-replay mentality.
• The Eighth Circuit's three-judge appellate panel: First, it granted an administrative stay of Nelson's order in rapid fashion, then waited two-and-a-half weeks to issue a permanent stay pending appeal, with judges Steven Colloton and Duane Benton agreeing that the owners would suffer irreparable harm if the lockout were to be lifted, among other dubious conclusions. I thought it was a hasty, illogical life-raft for big business, and I'm still baffled by the concept of allowing a non-unionized workforce to be locked out, but unlike certain people I just mentioned, I do respect the laws of the land. So, I forgive Judge Colloton and Judge Benton, and former president George W. Bush for appointing them. And the U.S. Supreme Court (including alleged states-rights champions Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas) for railroading through Bush's election in 2000. And Palm Beach County for its ridiculous butterfly ballots, and Ralph Nader for bogarting votes from Al Gore. And Ted Olson for successfully convincing the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Florida Supreme Court's manual-recount order. I especially forgive Olson, because he did such a good job of arguing for the players before the Eighth Circuit, ultimately securing a ruling in June from the same appellate panel that wasn't as unfavorable to their cause as they'd feared.
• The Panthers' players (and others around the league who shut out the media): With a chance to get some good publicity and underscore their message that they wanted to return to work, the Panthers hired a uniformed police officer to keep reporters away from their players-only workouts. I proceeded to jeopardize my own safety by calling a bunch of fierce, muscular athletes "morons" and "wimps". (In fairness, I said they were acting like morons and wimps, a distinction I adopted based on previous marital arguments gone awry.) I swear I won't hold a grudge, with one caveat: The next time a player complains to me about a coach's repressive policies, if the player in question was on a team that turned away reporters during the lockout, I will pantomime the playing of a violin and declare sarcastically, "I feel your pain."
• The money-grabbers: Those owners who cut the pay of coaches and other employees once the lockout began, before any reasonable evidence of lost revenue, were being senseless, shameless and gutless, as I wrote in early June. And you know what? I don't forgive them, unless and until they change their mind and refund the cash they gratuitously stole from their workers – which the Jets have done. Sorry, but when someone like Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, who saved tens of millions of dollars in the uncapped year by reducing player payroll, institutes staff-wide pay reductions in March, someone has to whack him in the kneecaps.
• The lockout-initiaters, a.k.a. the owners: Yep, them again – among the victims of the lockout were undrafted rookies and fringe players whose offseasons were indelibly impacted. Guys like Jacob Bender(notes), Ryan Bartholomew and Darnell Bolding will have an even harder time landing on NFL rosters than in a normal training camp because of the preparation and study time they've been denied. I wish that weren't the case, but labor wars are messy, and this falls under the category of collateral damage.
• The owners and players who stalled the negotiating process by making unrealistic demands: You know, like including sales tax as revenue or asking players to foot the entire bill for retiree benefits, which served as momentum-killers late last month. Now that peace is back: No muss, no fuss.
• NFL general counsel Jeff Pash: I know it's Pash's job to talk tough, but when he proclaimed that the lockout wouldn't be lifted until a new CBA was finalized, I knew he was tripping, and that's exactly how it went down. I'm not sweating it, though – Pash actually turned out to be a voice of reason at a time when tensions were high, and it looks like he'll get to keep his job, which seemed unlikely back in the early spring.
• Rich Eisen: The NFL Network anchor really, really, really wanted the lockout to end, and monitoring this labor dispute in real time did not help him get in touch with his inner child. He's so damn smooth on the air, though, that none of that angst mattered. Still, I'll miss those middle-of-the-night texts.
• My colleagues: Among other complaints, there were many abuses of the C-word, as reporters struggled to advance a story that played out in rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness fashion via Twitter and other 21st century media. So, were the players and owners close to a settlement or, you know, close? Many of you were confused, but you're all absolved, presuming you've read this far.
• The owners (again): With the two sides on the verge of a deal last week, they rushed through the process, staged a vote on a deal that wasn't yet finalized and, according to numerous player sources, insisted that the terms of the 2006 CBA would apply for important issues like the league's personal-conduct policy, substance-abuse discipline and treatment and pension-plan contributions. (If you saw my Twitter feed last Thursday and Friday, none of this is news to you.) It royally ticked off players and De Smith, and it very nearly derailed the deal. Ultimately, it may have slowed things down by a couple of days. In the end, the players let the emotion of the moment fade and got back to business; I suppose I can do the same.
• NFL PR chief Greg Aiello: We did some pushing and shoving on Twitter last Friday before concluding that we would soon be allowed to marry legally in New York, his state of residence. I told him he was too good-looking for me, and we're back to being BFFs once more.
• Logan Mankins(notes), Vincent Jackson(notes), Drew Brees and Peyton Manning: Yes, the four Brady et al plaintiffs tried (via their agents and/or NFLPA attorneys) to get something for themselves, either in the form of unrestricted free agency or a cash payoff. The timing was lousy, given that most of the major issues between the two sides were already resolved, but I'm somewhat sympathetic to their causes. For one thing, it's not far-fetched that they'd be taken care of; before the 1993 settlement, 35 players who'd put their names on antitrust lawsuits against the NFL were granted a provision in the CBA excluding them from being franchised by their respective teams. Secondly, had Smith pushed for the plaintiffs' quest for money or free agency earlier in the process, it would have been far less conspicuous, and they wouldn't have been held up as selfish and destructive by fans, media and other NFL players the way they were with the deal in the balance. Because of that outcry, as my colleague Jason Cole wrote on Wednesday, future players may not be as amenable to attaching their name to lawsuits in similar circumstances. Thirdly, Mankins and Jackson had a legitimate case that they were victimized by the system in 2010 and were recruited as plaintiffs precisely for that reason. So, for all of those reasons, I urge you to join me in excusing them, just as I hope you won't harbor any resentment toward the prominent veteran who told me Wednesday, "I hope Mankins holds out for four more weeks, so I don't have to go to training camp. That'd be awesome." If I told you I completely agreed, would you forgive me?