Mediator wins plaudits for work on NFL talks

The federal mediator overseeing negotiations between the NFL

owners and players has worked for the professional basketball,

hockey and baseball players’ unions. Yet in the current dispute,

George H. Cohen is viewed as an even-handed referee who has held

the talks together, avoiding the league’s first work stoppage since


Even with Cohen’s significant achievement of keeping the sides

at the table for an extra week, they are still far apart on their

main sticking point: how to divide more than $9 billion in annual

revenues. The collective bargaining agreement, already extended

twice at Cohen’s suggestion, is set to expire Friday. The talks

could be extended, but they could also fall apart – leading to a

possible lockout by owners and antitrust lawsuits by players.

President Barack Obama appointed Cohen to his current post as

director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an

independent agency, in 2009. The energetic 77-year-old from

Brooklyn, N.Y., had been working most recently as a member of the

NHL Players’ Association Advisory Board and in solo practice as a


Cohen, the son of a New York Post sportswriter and the father of

Bruce Cohen, producer of the Oscars, declined an interview request,

citing the ongoing negotiations. He’s only addressed the media once

in person since the mediation began Feb. 18, channeling a bit of

Casey Stengel last Friday when the two sides agreed to his request

for a seven-day extension.

”Now how does one get people in a room to have constructive

dialogue?” Cohen asked in a thick, high-pitched New York accent.

”And the answer is based on long-standing – look at my gray hair”

– and at this point, he theatrically turned the side of his head to

the cameras – ”experience in collective bargaining and

negotiations, as well as the FMCS’s long-standing policy.” That

policy, he said, is to build a dialogue between the sides by

ensuring that anything they say remains confidential and off the


”And that’s all I wanted to say, so you might be able to

appreciate why George Cohen has put not a gag order, but the

ongoing confidence of what is being said will stay at 2100 K

Street, not Las Vegas,” he said, referring to the K Street address

of his agency. ”I am not going to answer any questions because

were I to, I’d be violating my own policy.”

The mediation is voluntary and either side can call it off at

any time.

This isn’t the first sports labor dispute Cohen has tried to

resolve since taking over the mediation service. Almost exactly a

year ago, he helped broker a deal between Major League Soccer and

its players just before the season was scheduled to begin, winning

props from both the commissioner and players’ union. The MLS and

NFL talks are the only two negotiations that Cohen has personally

been at the table for as director, according to the agency.

Chris Klein, then a midfielder for the Los Angeles Galaxy,

participated in the MLS negotiations and said that Cohen was

especially effective when he put the parties in separate rooms.

Cohen would shuttle back-and-forth between the two, getting the

sides to agree to compromises, Klein recalled.

”He had far more energy than any of us involved,” added Klein,

who has since retired. ”We were saying, ‘Enough George, can we do

this tomorrow?’ He would have gone all night, and he showed up the

next day and he was ready to work again. His energy level and

intensity were very impressive.”

As a labor lawyer, Cohen played a key role in ending the most

notorious professional sports work stoppage in U.S. history, the

baseball strike that wiped out the ’94 World Series. In 1995, as

lead lawyer for the baseball players’ union, he helped win an

injunction against baseball owners from U.S. District Court Judge

Sonia Sotomayor, now a Supreme Court justice, which ended the 7

1/2-month strike.

The current head of the union, Michael Weiner, said that nobody

understands the collective bargaining process better than


”Yes, he represented unions for most of his career,” Weiner

said. ”But George has such respect for the process, and such

respect for the participants, that experienced negotiators

understand that he’s going to play it fair and can only help

parties that are trying to make a deal.”

Baseball management views him the same way.

”To be successful in his current role, the bargaining parties

must accept him as a true neutral party,” said Rob Manfred, Major

League Baseball’s executive vice president of labor relations.

”Those who know George accept the fact that his integrity and his

desire to help the process will cause him to act fairly, despite

the fact that he previously represented unions.”

William Gould, a Stanford law professor and former chairman of

the National Labor Relations Board, has known Cohen since they both

worked at the board in the early 1960s. Gould said that Cohen is

viewed as impartial because he’s never been one to look for a


”As a lawyer, he’s been someone who is looking for settlements,

who is conciliatory,” said Gould, author of the forthcoming book,

”Bargaining with Baseball.”

Gould added that it’s not unusual for mediators to come from a

labor or management background.

Klein, the former MLS player, said that when Cohen began the

soccer mediation, the two sides were far apart.

”Initially, he got us to put the big issues where the furthest

disagreement was off to the side, and start to check things off the

list that we could agree on,” he said. ”We began to feel a little

bit of momentum.”

Cohen said last year he used that strategy to get the sides to

realize that ”Western civilization does not hang in the


That might be a tougher sell to make in America’s most popular

spectator sport.


Associated Press Pro Football Writer Howard Fendrich contributed

to this story.