If elected officials could set aside partisan bickering last week to remedy a budget impasse and avoid a government shutdown, when will the NFL and NFL Players Association do the same?
The answer remains as nebulous as exactly one month ago when the league and NFLPA failed to prevent a work stoppage.
The two parties are no closer to striking a new labor deal than they were March 11. That’s when talks crumbled, the NFLPA decertified as a union, the collective bargaining agreement expired and the NFL locked out its players.
In fact, the gap might have grown even wider since then.
Here’s an analysis, in question-and-answer form, of where things stand and what might happen to help break the impasse:
Q: What is the state of CBA negotiations?
A: Both sides haven’t talked since the NFLPA decertified — a stratagem that legally allowed New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and nine other players to file a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the NFL alleging unlawful business practices. Such silence will likely be broken by the federal district judge hearing the Brady v. NFL case.
Multiple media outlets have reported that Susan Nelson will mandate Monday that the league and class counsel for the plaintiffs (mostly NFLPA attorneys, including executive director DeMaurice Smith) resume mediation. A confidential conference call was conducted Friday in an attempt to set groundwork for those talks.
While the effort sounds constructive, the discussions will likely be fruitless unless both sides are willing to budge considerably from the previous negotiating stances that led to this mess. That seems unlikely to happen.
During a hearing last Wednesday to request the NFL lift its player lockout, NFLPA/Brady v. NFL attorney Jim Quinn told Nelson, "Nothing good has come from the bargaining table. We did that for 2 1/2 years."
Q: What happens if Judge Nelson orders the lockout lifted when rendering her decision at some point in the next two weeks?
A: The NFL would resume some normalcy, although the league is prepared to appeal Nelson’s decision based on the claim she legally doesn’t have jurisdiction to lift the lockout. The appeal likely wouldn’t be decided in time to end the lockout before the NFL draft April 28-30.
Should the lockout remain intact, the NFLPA would have suffered a significant blow because NFL franchises are far more capable financially of weathering a long-term work stoppage than the players are. During Wednesday’s hearing, Nelson did express her concern about the NFL being allowed to continue a lockout indefinitely. This might bode well for the players.
If the lockout were lifted, players would return to work as the NFL and NFLPA continue to battle in court. Teams could make trades and personnel moves. Offseason programs would begin. Drug testing would resume, as would potential sanctions for violators of the NFL’s personal conduct policy during the lockout.
However, the rules specifying exactly how the league would operate remain unknown. The most likely scenario would have the 2011 season being played under the same guidelines as the 2010 campaign with no salary cap or minimum spending floor. Unrestricted free agency also could be limited to players with six accrued NFL seasons rather than the four needed under the CBA from 1993 to 2009.
That would be a blow to standouts like Minnesota wide receiver Sidney Rice, Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams and New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who had wanted to test the market unfettered. High-profile restricted free agents probably wouldn’t be changing teams because of the heavy draft pick compensation required to sign them away from their current squads. Restricted free agents also would be guaranteed only one-year contracts that pale compared to the lucrative multiyear deals available to top unrestricted free agents.
The permissibility of the franchise tag would further restrict movement among the game’s best players. And implementation of an overhauled rookie pay scale and human growth hormone testing also might be delayed.
Q: Who has suffered the most from the lockout so far?
A: NFL general counsel and lead negotiator Jeff Pash has said the league would lose $1 billion in revenue if a work stoppage lasted through the preseason. Both sides, though, are already paying a price.
All players are forced to pay for their own health care. Almost 500 pending free agents are unsure of their professional futures. The same goes for those who are on the trading block, like Philadelphia quarterback Kevin Kolb, or set to be released, like Tennessee quarterback Vince Young. Roster bonuses or payoffs for participation in team-held offseason workout programs aren’t being paid yet, either.
These are some of the elements the Brady-vs.-the-NFL suit claims is doing "irreparable harm" to players during the lockout.
Because no player contact is allowed, teams with new head coaches and coordinators are losing valuable time implementing their systems. New Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier already was forced to cancel his first offseason camp, which was scheduled for this past weekend. Franchises continue to cut non-player salaries — including those of coaches — and furlough employees as the lockout continues.
Some teams also are losing momentum in regards to season-ticket sales (only the New York Giants haven’t asked for early renewals). The Jacksonville Jaguars have yet to receive renewals from roughly 30 percent of their season-ticket base, which is a major step backward from a team that appeared to have turned the corner with fan support in 2010.
Q: Who is benefiting from the lockout?
A: The attorneys. David Boies and Paul Clement, who were hired by the NFL to help defend the league in Brady vs. the NFL, don’t come cheaply. Boies earned $10 million last year according to Forbes Magazine; Clement is a former U.S. solicitor general. Quinn and Jeffrey Kessler also can charge a pretty penny after having successfully represented the NFLPA in the lawsuits that led to the original CBA. By the time all is said and done, the legal bills that are racked up might make both sides lament having not reached a labor pact before the CBA’s expiration date.
Q: How is the impasse affecting retired players?
A: As expected, they are caught in the crossfire.
In its final CBA offer, the NFL had offered $84 million over the next two years to improve pensions and medical benefits. The NFLPA said the offer was insufficient and didn’t cover long-term funding over the length of the labor agreement.
More harm than good came from the first — and likely last — face-to-face meeting between Smith and NFL Alumni Association executive director George Martin at last month’s NFLPA meeting in Marco Island, Fla. The NFLPA wants no affiliation with Martin’s group because of its financial ties to the league. Martin, whose private trashing of the NFLPA in a memo contradicted the positive spin he tried to place on the meeting publically, claims he is trying to bring an independent voice for retired players to CBA talks. There are also retirees who want neither side to represent them as they fight independently for improved pension and medical benefits.
A lawsuit that Nelson is hearing in conjunction with Brady vs. the NFL claims the league has violated antitrust against retired players and draft prospects. The lawsuit was filed by Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller and three other retired players.
Eller vs. NFL attorney Michael Hausfield argued last Wednesday that the lockout is threatening the benefits of retired players and the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle retirement plan would be affected with a loss of game revenues.
Q: How much permanent harm is being done to the NFL by this work stoppage?
A: Sports fans have short-term memories, but they won’t be so quick to forgive and forget if the NFL starts missing games in the fall. There also isn’t much public sympathy for two sides that are unable to split billions in revenue, with the NFL enjoying unprecedented financial prosperity.
Retired kicker Morten Andersen, the NFL’s all-time scoring leader, was asked about the subject during a Friday interview with Jim Miller and me on Sirius NFL Radio.
"It’s all about greed, isn’t it?" Andersen said.
As he did for 25 seasons on the field, Andersen made a good point.