So much uncertainty remains when it comes to the NFL’s ever-fluid labor situation, but as we head into a Friday that will likely rank among the most significant days in the history of owner-player relations in major professional sports, this much is clear: For football fans, the hours between now and midnight Saturday will either be awful or awesome, and probably nowhere in between.
After a tumultuous Thursday that included the threat of union decertification, an apparent move toward a tentative deal and a hastily arranged 24-hour extension of the collective bargaining agreement, owners and NFL Players Association officials regrouped and readied themselves for a Friday that will likely define the immediate future of their thriving business.
Sources on both sides of the conflict agreed on one basic premise: If enough progress is made that another short-term CBA extension – perhaps a week, perhaps two – is announced by Friday night, the players and owners will almost certainly be headed for a settlement that will result in a multi-year deal before the end of this month.
If not, as one person familiar with the negotiations put it, “It will be Armageddon.” The union will decertify and file a class-action, anti-trust lawsuit against the owners, who’ll issue a legal challenge to the validity of the act while implementing a lockout (or de facto lockout). A long, bitter standoff would likely ensue, and the 2011 season could be threatened.
Given the lose-lose nature of the latter scenario, the smart money is on a settlement. And while the situation remains delicate, for the first time key figures in each camp believe a deal is highly achievable.
What changed? First, the union got some leverage with Tuesday’s decision by U.S. District Court Judge David Doty that imperiled the owners’ ability to access up to $4 billion in television revenues during a prospective lockout. Though owners didn’t display any noticeable drop-off in swagger during Wednesday’s negotiating sessions, they struck a more conciliatory tone on Thursday, with the CBA set to expire at midnight.
The union, meanwhile, went on the offensive, making it clear Thursday afternoon that it was prepared to decertify by day’s end. That further motivated owners, and members of the NFL’s negotiating committee, to work toward a tentative deal – and, when that failed, to push for the 24-hour extension.
Two men who shined in particular were the respective head honchos of each faction: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. Both Goodell and Smith aggressively pushed for a settlement and remained reasonable in the process, even as others around them assumed more radical stances.
In the end, owners came away with a higher regard for Smith than most of them have had since he replaced the late Gene Upshaw nearly two years ago. They were convinced by Thursday evening that Smith was prepared to make a deal and believed others on his executive committee were less enthusiastic about agreeing to the general framework being discussed by the two sides.
Goodell, meanwhile, had managed to marshal the hard-liners and moderates alike among his ranks – and to extract enough union concessions to make a settlement palatable to the overwhelming majority of owners. He also kept his cool during a very tense period of negotiations, which on Wednesday, according to several people familiar with the meetings, included New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft snapping at Bob Batterman, the labor attorney retained by the league for these negotiations, because he felt Batterman was speaking in legalese platitudes.
Even though the situation remained precarious at the end of business Thursday, the two sides had begun to shape the basic structure of a new CBA. Not surprisingly, it would resemble the type of agreement we suggested at the end of our fan’s guide to the labor situation last summer.
The owners would indeed get more money off the top before splitting “adjusted gross revenues” with the players – more than the $1 billion they received annually under the current deal, but less than the $2 billion they’d been demanding until recently. In simplistic terms, the owners would achieve an agreement they believe is roughly equivalent to the one that was on the table in 2006 before, they feel, Upshaw took advantage of outgoing commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s desire for labor peace at any cost and skewed the deal toward the union’s interests.
In this case, the hit to the players would be somewhat mitigated by an increase in revenue driven by the move to an 18-game regular season. The addition of two games (and elimination of two preseason games) might not be immediate, and the players would receive concessions such as limitations to offseason workouts and training camp practices and a new formula allowing them to qualify for certain benefits with fewer seasons played than in the past. However, in the end, the union is likely to capitulate and agree to the “enhanced” season in exchange for other considerations – again, something that was predicted many months ago.
In all probability, there will also be a rookie wage scale that increases revenues while playing to the popular sentiment among fans that the guaranteed money received by top draft picks is exorbitant when compared to the salaries of accomplished veterans.
The owners will be granted their longstanding request to have Doty removed as the arbiter of all CBA disputes, and there will likely be a provision extending player health care benefits in the event of a future lockout.
A new CBA would feature many other intricacies, of course, and there would be plenty of wrangling to come if Friday’s push for another short-term extension comes to fruition. However, if such an announcement is made, both sides would view that as an almost ironclad statement that a deal is forthcoming – and a work stoppage will have been averted.
This would be great news for fans, and it would be a credit to both Goodell and Smith, each of whom inherited an unenviable labor mess after the owners unanimously opted out of the final Taglibaue-Upshaw agreement in 2008, two years after it was signed.
To put it plainly: Before the clock strikes midnight, Friday could play out as one of the best days of each man’s professional life.
Then again, it could also be one of the most volatile and ruinous.
By Saturday morning, we should all know which way things broke – and whether awful or awesome is the appropriate adjective.