Chicago meetings pivotal for Goodell

Jason Cole

Will there be a Chicago 9 to emerge next Tuesday and Wednesday from among the NFL owners?

If there are nine – the total number of owners out of 32 needed to block the approval of a deal with the players and keep the lockout going – what will it mean to the short-term future of the 2011 NFL season? Just as important, what could such a snag mean to the long-term prospects of Roger Goodell as the league's commissioner and several others in the league office?

"There's a lot on the line [next] week," one owner said Friday. "I don't envy Roger's position because he has to make a lot of people happy. I think there's enough common sense out there that we'll get something done, but there are also some [owners] who still want to fight."

That desire to fight may exist even though two sources familiar with the circumstances – one on the players' side – indicated earlier in the week that the players are willing to give owners upwards of nearly 60 percent of the "true up" money over the next three to four years. In other words, if the owners were to grow the business by $1 billion above projections in a given a year (a huge but not impossible gain), the owners could get nearly $600 million of that additional money.

The deal is expected to be vastly more complicated than that, featuring a reset of the percentages after a three- or four-year period. But the basic idea is that players have come a long way from the simple 50-50 split they offered in March.

The problem is that ever since the owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2008, there has been a strong subset of them who have pushed to fight the now decertified NFL Players Association for significant rollbacks in the portion of money going to players. Initially, this was not just a slight adjustment this group was seeking. It was an attempt to turn back the clock to pre-2006, when players shared in only a part of total football revenue, not all of it. They didn't want just a chunk of money back; they wanted a $1 billion boulder right off the top to go with the other $1 billion they were already getting.

That was $2 billion going straight into the owners' pockets out of a little more than $9 billion the league currently makes. When that idea crumbled, the owners countered with a system that didn't account for potentially huge increases in revenue that are expected to occur when the television contracts, which expire following the 2013 season, are renegotiated. That's when the players, frustrated with the perceived shell game and lack of respect that went with it, walked away from the negotiations in March, decertified as a union and filed a lawsuit.

Some in the ownership group saw that as a positive in the big picture because it meant that the hardliners – generally believed to include the likes of Jerry Richardson (Carolina Panthers), Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Mike Brown (Cincinnati Bengals), Dan Snyder (Washington Redskins) and Ralph Wilson (Buffalo Bills) – would have to back off because their power play failed.

Now, perceived moderates such as John Mara (New York Giants), Clark Hunt (Kansas City Chiefs), Bob Kraft (New England Patriots) and Dean Spanos (San Diego Chargers) have become the lead negotiators for the owners. Richardson has also been part of the process and some believe he has mellowed somewhat the past two months, particularly after his embarrassing treatment of players such as Peyton Manning(notes) became public. Likewise, Kraft was once seen as a hardliner early in the process, but has become much more of a peacemaker since late last season, repeatedly saying that a deal could be made, particularly if the lawyers were left out of the process.

Or as Mara said during the meeting of owners in Indianapolis last month, the best way to a long-term labor peace was a fair deal.

"If it's not fair, all that means is that you're back at the table faster," Mara said.

John Mara.
(AP Photo)

The question is whether enough other owners agree with Mara's sentiment. When the league gathers in Chicago next week, Goodell and other members of the negotiating team will update the other owners on the state of the negotiations. Goodell is expected to explain what the split of the money will be under a new deal and will recommend that the owners do the deal, although there is not expected to be a formal vote.

Another tricky element to all of this is that the vast majority of owners have little knowledge of what the deal is right now. Because Judge Arthur Boylan, who has been mediating the sessions, has requested that both sides keep the talks as confidential as possible, very few owners outside the negotiating team are believed to know the specifics.

That has been good because it has allowed for more progress. It's bad because not knowing leads to anxiety and frustration.

"Your first reaction to most deals is to poke holes in it. It's human nature," a second unnamed owner said. "You always want the perfect deal, everything to go your way, and you have to think it through to figure out what's acceptable. In this case, you have to multiply that process by 32 … when we sit down and look over this deal, I'm curious how the room is going to react. We're at a critical stage."

It's critical on multiple levels.

First, and most immediate, there's a time crunch to get the season started. Many executives in the league office and with different teams believe that free agency must begin by July 15 at the latest in order to start training camp on time and have a full preseason. Otherwise, the league starts to lose some of the reported $700 million-$1 billion that's tied up in training camp and the preseason.

Second, if a deal isn't reached now and the owners reject the work that has been done with the players, this could turn into a long fight that goes until at least September and could cause significant backlash to the league. In January, Sports Illustrated's Peter King stated that a group of owners were willing to lose an entire season in order to get a better deal with the players. While that sounds brave, it may be tactical suicide depending on how the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rules on the league's appeal to maintain a lockout.

While it's widely believed that the three-judge panel will rule in favor of the league's ability to lock out the players for the time being, it's also believed that the league will lose that power at some point. Specifically, the judges sounded as if they would allow the players to return to court in September, when the previous collective bargaining agreement allowed them the freedom to decertify and, therefore, file an antitrust lawsuit.

At that point, the league could be brought to its knees because it could lose the ability to lock out the players. In other words, the league is doing OK in court right now, but eventually there aren't enough fingers to put in the dam. At that point, the players could end up with the kind of power akin to what their brethren in the NBA and major league baseball have gotten over the years.

Third, all of this could reflect poorly on Goodell, who has already taken his fair share of shots through this process. Over the first four years of his tenure as commissioner, Goodell was seen as a powerful force, coming up with new ways to make money for owners and being tough on players with his discipline.

However, the negotiations with the trade association have exposed Goodell as weak in the eyes of many people, particularly players. From Derrick Mason(notes) to Chester Pitts(notes) to getting booed by fans at the NFL draft in April, Goodell has been openly criticized on numerous fronts. For instance, there was a curious reaction on the morning of March 11, the day that talks broke down with players. King wrote that Goodell had been given approval by the owners the previous night to cut the best deal he could get.

Rather than seeing that as proof of Goodell's power, many people around the league, in the media and, most importantly, among the players wondered why Goodell didn't have that power before.

Or as the aforementioned source on the player's side said, rhetorically: "If he couldn't cut a deal before, why were we talking to him?"

That is a fascinating question that gets to the heart of how little the owners trust the man they elected to follow Paul Tagliabue, the guy who has taken much of the blame for the 2006 deal that owners quickly came to hate. From there, there is a trickle-down effect to people such as NFL vice president and general counsel Jeff Pash.

Could Goodell be in trouble if he can't keep the hardliners in line and this negotiation blows up?

"I hope not, but it's a really good question," the first unnamed owner said.

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