Any lingering bitterness, frustration and angst created by four-plus months of labor strife between NFL team owners and players was minimized Monday by one touching gesture.
A joint news conference between leaders from both sides was held to announce completion of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. A slew of prominent team owners, players and executives involved in negotiations — including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith — assembled outside union headquarters in Washington D.C.
That’s where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Indianapolis center Jeff Saturday stole the spotlight.
Kraft’s appearance was a surprise since his wife Myra had died last week following a long bout with cancer. After giving his thoughts on the labor deal, Saturday stepped to the microphones and did the same before segueing into a thank you to his wife for her patience with his role as an NFLPA leader.
Saturday then turned to his right and stared directly at Kraft. He began praising Myra Kraft “who even in her weakest moment allowed Mr. Kraft to come (to negotiations) and fight this out. Without him, this deal does not get done.
“I don’t want to be (dramatic) in any way,” Saturday continued. “But he’s a man who helped save football.”
As Saturday concluded, Kraft’s head was bowed as he tried to maintain composure. The two then hugged in an embrace that put a human touch on what was a cold bargaining process.
The chill from the winter air was nothing compared to the frigidity that existed when Kraft and Saturday first sat across from each other at the negotiating table last February in Washington. Other team owners carried an heir of superiority during those early talks. NFLPA frustration at such treatment along with the lack of headway being made about their demands led to this work stoppage.
The gamesmanship continued in the courtroom until Smith and Goodell finally began to personally bond in May. Even while CBA-related legal processes continued, both men set the tone for far less contentious negotiating sessions.
“The part that was most impressive to me was when players and owners began to sit across the table from each other and dialogue,” Saturday said. “Things began to happen.”
A 400-page, 10-year labor deal gradually came together before the regular season became affected.
“We didn’t get everything that either side wanted,” Smith said. “There are a lot of things that I’m sure players wanted and owners wanted that we didn’t get. But we did arrive at a deal that we think was fair and balanced.”
For the next decade, the NFL and NFLPA are locked into this CBA. Disputes will no longer be settled in the courtroom as each side agreed to an arbitration process to settle any upcoming disputes. They will share the riches of a league whose financial future is blindingly bright. The $10 billion both sides are expected to share for the 2011 season will look like chicken feed to filet mignon after the league signs future television contracts and bolsters other revenue streams.
The NFL has suffered short-term damage. Fans have expressed frustration not only through words but their wallets with diminished offseason sales of merchandise and season tickets. Goodell knows that not all will be instantly forgiven even with the new CBA guaranteeing the start of the 2011 campaign.
“We have some work to do to make sure they understand that we are sorry for the frustration we put them through over the last six months,” Goodell said.
But eventually that bond will be reformed just like the recently formed one between the players and owners that Saturday and Kraft embodied. And most importantly, the NFL will be better in the long run after what in the big picture will be remembered as a short-term setback.
Despite the somber circumstances of his wife’s passing, Kraft expressed the same sentiment with a little levity.
“I believe you’re going to see a great NFL over the next decade,” he said. “And I hope we gave a little lesson to the (politicians) in Washington because the debt crisis is a lot easier to fix than this deal was.”