Amid court rulings, conference calls and a "tough" day of negotiating on Thursday that led to another such session on Friday, there were some positive notes to take away from the past couple of days.
First, players' attorney Jeff Kessler expressed cautious optimism during a call with his clients on Thursday. You can highlight the word cautious, but for the man who the league perceives as a hawk to be singing even a soft tune of peace, something good must be happening. Second, multiple sources indicate that Dallas owner Jerry Jones, like Kessler, is also suddenly working toward resolution after long being perceived as a hardliner by the players.
Yep, that's right. Kessler and Jones are suddenly sounding like pacifists. Owners and the players navigate a number of figurative landmines, there are people like Jones and New England owner Robert Kraft there to see the big picture.
On Friday, there was ample reason for anxiety. First, Kessler, NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and fellow attorney Jim Quinn held a conference call on Thursday night with the players who signed on as plaintiffs in the Tom Brady(notes) et al vs. the NFL case. While Kessler had measured optimism, the call didn't lay out a solution to the labor impasse and all indications were that negotiations will go into next week.
Second, NFL Network correspondent Albert Breer, who has spent more than four months chasing this story from the start, reported that Thursday was a "tough" day in the talks. Not tough because it went for more than 12 hours. Tough because there wasn't a lot of agreement. Third, and finally, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals finally ruled, as expected, that the NFL could continue to lockout the players. Carefully worded within that were some stipulations that made it possible for the players to continue the lockout battle, but the upshot was that the power to lockout could keep negotiations at a standstill.
Fortunately, for now, the owners aren't trying to wield that lockout power. That's likely because they know that they probably won't be able to lockout and face huge risks come September based on the stipulations of the previous collective bargaining agreement.
"While we respect the court's decision, today's ruling does not change our mutual recognition that this matter must be resolved through negotiation. We are committed to our current discussions and reaching a fair agreement that will benefit all parties for years to come, and allow for a full 2011 season," the league and the players said in a joint statement after the ruling.
That's all good and the fact that they're still talking is critical. It wasn't long ago that these negotiations were going sideways. After the players filed the Brady case in March, the initial mediation sessions were, at best, icy. Or as attorney Michael Hausfeld, who is representing a group of primarily retired players, described earlier this week: "When someone started talking, there weren't enough windows for people to stare out of."
As the sessions wore on, tensions ebbed and flowed. At one point, the players got so tired of Jones' hard-line approach that they asked that he not be part of the talks. While that was a short-term salve, it wasn't a realistic long-term approach. If any deal is going to get done, Jones is going to have a huge say in it.
Simply put, Jones may be the most powerful and respected owner in the NFL when it comes to making a deal. Kraft, who has been one of the major peace proponents for weeks, is a close second. The vast majority of owners look to Jones and Kraft for guidance and, over the past two days, the players have been happy to see Jones and Kraft in lockstep over getting a deal done. In many respects, Jones and Kraft are more powerful than NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell may be the face of the league, but he doesn't have the body of owners completely under his control yet and that has become obvious in these talks.
Instead, it's Jones and Kraft who really have the ear of their brethren. That's because, at the end of the day, Jones is a dealmaker. Say what you will about his tactics (Jones has long pushed for serious rollbacks in what the players make), but Jones doesn't get so hardheaded that he does things just for the sake of doing them. That was true back when he pushed for better television contracts in the early 1990s. It was true when he worked out a new contract for Emmitt Smith in 1993. It was true when he helped solve the league's problems with the cable companies in 2009. Jones understands that at the end of the day, it's better to do a deal than do nothing.
So does Kraft. That's impressive because neither man owned their team the last time the NFL went through a true labor stoppage in 1987 that cost the league games in the regular season. Give Jones and Kraft credit for having vision, not just hammers.
As long as Jones and Kraft are at it, a solution may only be days away.