Goodell, Smith fight through rough patches

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith are hardly chummy. Unlike their respective predecessors, Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, Goodell and Smith are not attempting to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement on the strength of a strong personal relationship.

Yet as the two leaders push toward a peaceful compromise that is likely to avert the work stoppage most of us have seen coming for well over a year, they have displayed many common qualities, most notably a deep-seated respect for professional football and the fans who have made it far and away America's most popular sport.

Confronted with significant challenges from the start, each man stood tall against more extreme elements in his own ranks and helped avert the NFL's equivalent of nuclear war: a union decertification and antitrust lawsuit countered by league-initiated legal challenges and a lockout. With the CBA set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, Goodell and Smith were instrumental in crafting the 24-hour extension which paved the way for Friday's promising announcement that the two sides will continue negotiations through March 11.

By that point, sources in both camps expect to have an agreement – or, at least, to be close enough to one to announce a third extension that would allow the remaining issues to be addressed.

Granted, things could still blow up between now and next Friday. The two sides, according to a source familiar with the negotiations, remain $750 million apart on the central issue – how much money owners will be credited off the top before splitting up adjusted gross revenues with the players. And as has been the case for more than a year, union officials continue to insist that the owners open their books and reveal the financial justification for the increase they're demanding. The owners, as they have all along, remain opposed to that request.

Yet statements Friday by Goodell and Smith, as well as conversations with several of their confidants, suggest that the two leaders are absolutely committed to bridging that gap and avoiding a work stoppage. When Goodell said after Friday's announcement, "This is going to get resolved through negotiations, not litigation," and Smith, addressing NFL fans while answering reporters' questions, said, "We're not going to let you down," they weren't just spewing propaganda.

Rather, each man had already backed up his words with a sincere drive toward compromise and, ultimately, conciliation.

For all the public and private sparring in which the two had engaged since Smith was elected to succeed the late Upshaw in March of 2009, the tension was understandable. Each leader began his respective job in a tough spot, and they were placed on a collision course by the men who chose them.

Roger Goodell
(Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

Goodell, one of Tagliabue's chief lieutenants, took over in August of 2006 with the understanding that many of the owners who chose him were already dissatisfied with the CBA extension they'd approved just five months earlier. Tagliabue, who was on the verge of ending his reign as commissioner, desperately wanted to go out on the heels of a new labor deal, rather than a potential work stoppage that could have tainted his legacy. Upshaw, these owners came to believe, understood this and took advantage of Tagliabue's predicament, extracting concessions that benefited the union. Further, the owners were persuaded to include new provisions for revenue sharing that caused owners of the more profitable franchises to dole out millions to those with less lucrative operations.

Powerful owners like the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones, the New England Patriots' Robert Kraft and the Carolina Panthers' Jerry Richardson wanted their concerns addressed, and by then they were already intent on exercising their contractual right to opt out of the CBA two years early. When the owners did this via unanimous vote in 2008, they put Goodell on official notice that the two sides were heading for a showdown following the 2011 season – and that they were prepared to lock out the players to get back what they had lost in '06.

When Upshaw died after a bout with pancreatic cancer in August of '08, players knew that whomever they chose to succeed him would be walking into a confrontational situation, and one in which the owners figured to have more leverage than the union. Smith, a prominent Washington D.C. trial lawyer and litigator, sold himself as a man with political connections and a knowledge of the legal system – and as a self-made professional who was tough enough to go toe-to-toe with Goodell and the owners.

In that sense, neither leader was allowed to be a moderate, even if it went against his natural sensibilities. Goodell attempted to say the right things about forging a partnership with the union and not wanting a work stoppage, but he was never in charge of the process – rather, he was a designated representative of the powerful owners who'd tabbed him to replace Tagliabue. Last summer, while touring NFL training camps to speak to players about the shaky labor landscape, he suffered repeated indignities as angry union members pressed him for answers.

Smith, meanwhile, had even less respect from most owners than Goodell got from those players last summer. Many owners regarded Smith as a smooth-talking grandstander who craved the limelight – to the point where he might welcome a protracted lockout as a means of attracting attention – while lacking an understanding of business. They rolled their eyes at the showmanship he displayed in his press conference before Super Bowl XLIV last winter, one which began with him proclaiming, "Who Dat?" and announcing that by yelling the New Orleans Saints' slogan he had won a bet with his son.

DeMaurice Smith.
(Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

Yet Smith, time and time again, proved to be anything but a lightweight. He consistently and forcefully stuck up for the union's interests and refused to be overrun by an NFL operation that had vast advantages in resources, staffing and media opportunities. His strategic sense also proved to be sharp, particularly his decision to file a legal complaint against the league for the contract extensions it negotiated with its broadcast partners which would have allowed money to flow uninterrupted during a work stoppage. On Tuesday, when U.S. District Judge David S. Doty overturned a special master's ruling and sided with the NFLPA, it gave the union a much-needed sense of leverage and empowered Smith to push for a compromise without being criticized for having capitulated to the owners' threats.

After another relatively tense negotiating session on Wednesday, Goodell and Smith seized the moment on a Thursday in which the two sides suddenly made enormous progress on the framework of what will likely result in the next CBA. Whereas hardliners like Richardson had shown little respect for the players' position in the months leading up to the deadline, Goodell made it clear to his constituents that a short-term extension in the hope of a settlement was the smart play. The new deal, incidentally, will likely appease big-market owners like Jones and Kraft by eliminating some of the revenue-sharing provisions they found so odious.

In this sense, Goodell did a lot to quiet his skeptics. For all the criticism of the final deal negotiated by Tagliabue, the former commissioner was a master at creating a consensus among the owners and getting the fringe elements in line. Even if it required the NFL's equivalent of earmarks – say a sweeter deal on club-seat revenues or the promise to push for a future Super Bowl in a specific owner's stadium – Tagliabue knew what buttons to push to get a large majority on board.

Oddly enough, it was Smith, sources said, who faced some resistance from his executive committee after presenting them with the specifics of what he and Goodell had discussed Thursday afternoon. However, after a show of force earlier in the day in which he informed the owners the NFLPA was prepared to decertify – with a class-action lawsuit brought by star quarterbacks Tom Brady(notes), Peyton Manning(notes) and Drew Brees(notes) to follow – Smith, too, sold his charges on the advantages of a compromise, as opposed to a nasty labor war that could have lasted several years.

Goodell and Smith still have plenty of work to do in the next week, and if the deal falls apart and the doomsday scenario plays out, each man will face the specter of a tarnished legacy. Conversely, if negotiations result in a new CBA, both leaders will have solidified their standing among their own constituents, the public at large, and even their adversaries.

And who knows? Somewhere down the road, if they can keep the peace while holding their ground, Goodell and Smith might end up having a beer or two after all.