ATLANTA – At a time the NFL and the Players Association normally would be enjoying a honeymoon period, their relationship appears to be about as comfortable as the Senate hearings on the Secret Service shenanigans in Cartagena.
A lot of tight lips and no smiles.
In just about every way possible, the league and the union are at odds. That includes a silly flap over whether players should wear knee and thigh pads, and grievances in response to the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal. On Wednesday, the union even filed a collusion claim against the league based on the belief that clubs tacitly agreed to a "secret" cap during the 2010 season.
Adding to the friction is Jonathan Vilma's defamation lawsuit against commissioner Roger Goodell. To be clear, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith did not direct Vilma's course of action in response to the linebacker being suspended for the 2012 campaign for his role in the Saints' scandal. At the same time, plenty of people believe that if Smith and Goodell had a more productive relationship, this might have been avoided.
To put it another way, if former union head Gene Upshaw were still alive …
"None of this would be happening," an NFL source said Tuesday at the league meeting. "Vilma would have probably been suspended for six games, the other guys for one or two each. Gene would have seen the evidence and it would be over. Instead, you have this fight that's going on forever. It's all we talk about and that's not good for the players or the league."
Or as another league source said: "The worst part of this is the demonizing of [Goodell]. Instead of the players seeing Roger as a resource and a person who wants to help them, he's the bad guy."
Some of that is natural. Goodell's role is not always a positive one and players are clear about the fact that he works for the owners first (a point driven home during last year's labor negotiations). However, the figurative bridge that connected Goodell to the players has been progressively severed.
"There's no cooperation on even the smallest ideas," one of the league sources said. "We come to the union with ideas about programs and the union just gives us blank stares and says, 'Our leadership is not interested in that.' We say back to them, 'OK, if you have ideas, we'll help with them. We don't even need to say it's sponsored by the league, but let's have a joint effort.' No response."
The belief in some circles is that Smith doesn't want to follow in the footsteps of Upshaw, who was sometimes perceived as being too close to Goodell and predecessor Paul Tagliabue.
According to a union source, Smith even has a picture on his desk of Upshaw standing next to Goodell, striking a rather chummy pose.
"De said he has that to remind him of what he doesn't want to be," the source said.
Another union source said Smith and Goodell never had a great opportunity to develop a real relationship because of the timing.
"If you remember when De took over, the process had already started. The owners had already opted out [of the collective bargaining agreement] and the posturing by both sides had already begun," the source said. "I don't think there was ever an opportunity for Roger and De to ever really sit down and get to know each other."
NFLPA spokesman George Atallah did not respond to a request to discuss the relationship between the sides.
On Tuesday, Goodell said only that the relationship with the union was a typical working one. This week, the league and the union went head-to-head over the issue of players wearing pads, a seemingly innocuous and inane topic that the league and the union have been discussing for three years.
"That's part of operating in a pretty complex world," said Goodell, who noted that Nike CEO Mark Parker recently told him that NBA players wear more pads from the waist down than NFL players. "You have to be open about the initiatives you take on …
"You don't expect to agree on everything. That's part of the dialogue, that's part of finding solutions. The reality is that you have to put issues on the table and drive toward solutions that are good for the game. … I don't characterize things very often. We continue to discuss the issues. We don't always agree, but we seek resolutions."
The problem is that the avenues to seek communication and resolution seem to be disappearing.
Over the past two years, the union has done away with the Player Advisory Council, a group of players that would regularly meet with Goodell to discuss everything from on-field and off-field discipline to playing rules. The council was started shortly after Goodell and Upshaw reached agreement on the Personal Conduct Policy in 2006.
That gave the players a voice in the process. Whether Roger actually did what the players said, at least they felt like they had a voice. They could talk to him and get their points across.
There is now no regular, direct communication between Goodell and players. While Goodell has often spoken to individual players – often in disciplinary matters – the situation is far less comfortable than before.
Moreover, in the Saints' bounty scandal, players were told by the union not to meet with Goodell to go over the possible discipline. The league is now awaiting the result of two appeals the union filed over whether Goodell has the authority to discipline the players at all.
To observers, it's all a waste of time.
"You're going to have disagreements on issues, but there were ways to settle issues amicably and we've gotten away from that," a third league source said.
Or as NFL vice president and attorney Jeff Pash put it: "I think we've lost sight a little bit that there are more things that bring us together than separate us. We need to work together, not just for the business end of the game, but because this is a very special and unique activity we're all a part of. We need to preserve that and be guardians of it."
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