He is married to a supermodel and mesmerized by fatherhood – and he relishes a break from the training-camp grind as much as any NFL veteran. Yet on a rare day off last August, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady(notes) set his alarm clock early and hit the golf course with his boss.
It was not a bad business decision: During a round at Willowbend Country Club with team owner Robert Kraft and Kraft's grandson, Harry, Brady added new meaning to the term "Go for the green."
After many months worth of contract-related tension and one day after the quarterback was involved in a serious car accident, Brady and Kraft took to the links and parlayed their strong and mutual-respect-filled relationship into an exquisitely timed heart-to-heart. According to sources familiar with the interaction, the outlook on a new deal for Brady became far sunnier by afternoon's end, and a month later the quarterback formally signed a four-year, $76-million extension, giving him increased peace of mind before commencing a second MVP season in 2010.
Eight months after that productive golf date, Brady and Kraft once again find themselves on opposite sides of a sticky situation, this time as key figures facing off in a far more complicated and charged dispute. Call me a hopeless romantic but, as the players' antitrust lawsuit against the league hits a Minneapolis courtroom Wednesday, I still think a quick settlement is the smart play by both sides – and Brady, an unlikely front man for the players' labor cause, is the cool, creative leader who can jump-start the process and help conjure a fantastic finish.
To be fair, that's somewhat of an oversimplification. More accurately, Brady and two of his co-plaintiffs, fellow superstar quarterbacks Peyton Manning(notes) and Drew Brees(notes), are the men with the collective juice to initiate some backchannel diplomacy and make a push for labor peace.
There are many highly logical reasons why this shouldn't and won't happen, but I'm going to focus on why it makes sense. The first and most obvious point is that Brady, Manning and Brees have the power to lead, because the NFLPA insisted upon setting it up that way.
When the union decertified last month, it was naturally assumed that NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith had yielded his role as the players' most powerful advocate to a team of lawyers, most conspicuously longtime union attorney Jeffrey Kessler. In one sense, that's absolutely true – technically, any attempts to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement must now go through the plaintiffs' legal counsel in the antitrust lawsuit.
Yet the plaintiffs themselves have the nominal power to settle, and the name of the suit – Brady et al v. NFL – tells you all you need to know.
Brees, a member of the NFLPA's executive committee, has been an engaged and high-profile presence in union matters for several years. Manning was embroiled in the February bargaining session at which Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson copped a condescending attitude toward the Indianapolis Colts' future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Brady's role, conversely, had been largely low-key until the lawsuit was filed. When the Pats' assistant player rep agreed to be a plaintiff, he was demonstrating his solidarity with Manning and Brees – and with the rank-and-file union members who have less lucrative situations than he does.
I'm convinced that Brady was a bit caught off guard by the extent to which he has emerged as the public face of the players' cause – that he's being sold as "the Curt Flood of the modern era," as one person close to him says. Certainly, that makes him uncomfortable in relation to his adversarial position in relation to Kraft, an owner for whom he has deep personal regard.
Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, Robert's eldest son, with whom the quarterback is also close, spoke of that awkwardness at the NFL owner meetings, and I have little doubt that his assessment is accurate. As the lawsuit moves forward, don't expect Brady to testify that he has been mistreated in any way by his bosses. Trust me, it will never happen.
That said, part of Brady's leadership brilliance has always been rooted in a sincere sense that he's no more special than the teammates who make his success possible. Part of this is because of who Brady is, and part of it because of where he came from: Drafted 199th overall and relegated to fourth-string duty as a rookie, this is a superstar who remembers what it's like to be anonymous.
And if some of Brady's insistence upon not holding himself above the rest of the team is calculated, it's a testament to his shrewdness. Remember, Brady once famously refused to do a national credit-card commercial unless his linemen were also featured in the campaign. How hard do you think those guys fought to keep opposing defenders out of his grill?
In this case, Brady's brethren are the 1,800-plus members of the recently decertified union, and the quarterback understands that he's taking one for the team. It's no coincidence that one of his current linemen, Logan Mankins(notes), and another former teammate, Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel(notes), are among the co-plaintiffs. I also believe Brady is demonstrating solidarity with Manning, the only other active NFL player who is his peer and with whom his legacy will always be conjoined.
Throw in Brees, who gained entry into the Brady-Manning green room with his Super Bowl XLIV MVP performance, and you've got a power trio that makes Muse sound like elevator music.
Getting the holy trinity on board with the lawsuit was a home run for Smith and NFLPA leadership, at least in terms of public relations. However, losing the support of one or all of the superstar quarterbacks would be the equivalent of Butler's performance in Monday night's NCAA championship game defeat to UConn.
This is why Brady and his two buddies are uniquely positioned to make a move toward resolving this staredown. Given his relationship with Kraft, the Pats quarterback surely could reach out in an attempt to arrange an ultra-secret, off-the-record settlement meeting with a select group of savvy and sensible owners. In addition to Kraft, I'd vote for the Giants' John Mara and the Steelers' Dan Rooney (he is, after all, a diplomat by trade) to sit across the table from the three quarterbacks. Sorry, Jerry Richardson – you're not invited. Nor are Kessler, his fellow union lawyers or league counterparts Jeff Pash and Bob Batterman. Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Smith would have to sit out these talks.
Brees (right) attended the players' mediation with the league before talks broke down.
(Rod Lamkey/Getty Images)
Such a meeting might not result in a deal, but it would certainly have a shot. If the quarterbacks were to enunciate exactly what the players are seeking in a very clear and businesslike manner, and the owners were to counter with a similar assessment of what's important to them, I believe they might find enough common ground to forge a tentative agreement.
Perhaps the starting point could be the offer the owners made last month, hours before the players rejected the notion of another short-term CBA extension and decided to decertify. Though Smith has publicly portrayed it as "the worst deal in the history of sports," it was a significant upgrade from their previous offer and contained notable concessions such as a reduction of offseason workouts, a fund for retired-player benefits and at least a short-term shelving of a proposed move from 16 to 18 regular-season games.
Or maybe the quarterbacks could begin the meeting by revisiting the union's proposal from February calling for a clean 50-50 split in non-adjusted revenue, which is similar to the current breakdown and could be tweaked to address ownership concerns about investment expenses and other changing economic realities of the business.
If these accomplished men can look one another in the eye and cut out the posturing and excessive emotion, I believe it's possible a common ground can be found. If the two sides were to agree on the basic framework of a new CBA, that would be enough. The owners could then instruct their lawyers to work out the details and get a deal done, and Brady, Manning and Brees would do the same. If Kessler, Smith or anyone else were to balk at that arrangement, the quarterbacks could threaten to withdraw their support. I'm pretty sure that would ensure cooperation from the players' side.
Yes, this may be a pipe dream – I ran it by someone on the management side of the dispute, and he described it as a different kind of dream – but it's also the cleanest way to settle this increasingly messy labor dispute, one which threatens to damage a thriving business.
Look at it this way: Who would you rather have handling the fate of your favorite professional sports league – lawyers like Kessler and NFL-hired big gun David Boies, or arguably the sport's three most accomplished signal-callers?
The answer is a no-brainer. It's time for Brady, Manning and Brees to lead the NFL out of labor hell, and they can do it by picking up the phone and initiating the mother of all settlement caucuses. So take my advice, guys, and rev up the private jets, head for secluded locale somewhere in the Caribbean, or Kauai, or Costa Rica, and start talking about a solution.
Just make sure there's a golf course nearby, and don't forget to keep the beer cart well-stocked.