Extension alludes to new CBA soon

BY Alex Marvez • March 4, 2011

NFL fans can stop holding their breath even if the league and players union continue to blow hot air.

A labor deal is almost certainly coming sooner than later.

The latest proof came Friday. Both sides agreed to a seven-day negotiating extension at the request of a federal mediator. The NFL and NFLPA now have an entire week to get their act together before a work stoppage goes into effect.

That's plenty of time to end this drama -- even though history has shown an agreement won't be announced until the 11th hour.

If the two sides weren't moving close to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, these talks already would have ended. The NFLPA would have decertified as a union to prevent an NFL lockout of players. Lawsuits and labor complaints would be getting filed. Players and team owners would be publicly kvetching.

And fans would be rolling their eyes at how two parties allowed a golden goose worth more than $9 billion in annual revenue to get cooked.

The NFL and NFLPA have wisely decided not to light that oven yet.

“There has been enough serious discussions to warrant both sides taking this step," NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said Friday outside the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service headquarters in Washington, D.C. "The mediators felt that. That’s why they requested it of us.

"If they believe we’re in a position where we can make progress and get to an agreement, then I think it’s incumbent upon us with our ownership to make that effort.”

And not screw things up. That goes for the NFLPA, too.

Over the weekend, the league and players union will regroup separately to discuss what has transpired following almost two weeks of mediation. Such discussions have a chance to derail progress only if team owners or the NFLPA's executive boards are unhappy with the proposals being made on the three most significant issues: Revenue sharing, an 18-game regular season and rookie salary cap.

This isn't an easy negotiation. It never is in labor disputes when one side (the NFLPA) is happy with the current arrangement and the other (the NFL) wants significant changes.

The rhetoric from both sides has added to the tension.

Standing in front of the NFLPA complex named after the late Gene Upshaw, union chief DeMaurice Smith gave the kind of lawyeresque speech that his straight-to-the-point predecessor would never deliver. A high-profile attorney before joining the NFLPA, Smith sounded more like he was trying to sway a jury to side with the union in his four-minute "news conference" than provide meaningful perspective on the labor talks.

Yes, Smith and the NFL are officially saddled with a gag order from chief mediator George H. Cohen (even though both sides are leaking information like a sieve from the meeting room to some media members during the sessions). Smith, though, branched into propaganda with seven references to the "fans." Smith also referenced the late Dave Duerson as being part of the initial lawsuit that helped bring the CBA into existence in 1993.

"He signed on to be a plaintiff in a case to fight for free agency for players," Smith said of Duerson, the ex-Chicago Bears and New York Giants safety who recently committed suicide at the age of 50. "He signed on to be a leader to benefit players who he knew were going to come after him."

Duerson, a member of the NFLPA's player benefits board after his retirement, deserves praise for taking a stand. Smith also was sincerely shaken by Duerson's suicide, a decision that may have been influenced by brain trauma suffered while playing football.

But skeptics will wonder whether Smith was being exploitative by invoking Duerson's name in a labor negotiation when answering a simple, unrelated question: By agreeing to the one-week negotiating extension, is it fair to say progress is being made and both sides are substantially closer to a deal than before?

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wasn't nearly as loquacious in his media comments after Friday's session. Goodell did once again repeat his now-cliche line that "this is going to get resolved through negotiations, not through litigation."

Goodell, though, didn't acknowledge that litigation was the factor that pushed the NFL into a less hard-line negotiating stance. The NFLPA won a lawsuit Tuesday prohibiting the NFL from potentially collecting $4 billion in future television payments to stock a lockout war chest. Once that decision was rendered, it seemed the league was far more willing to make concessions in CBA talks.

The only words that ultimately will matter are the ones spoken behind closed doors in CBA talks. But in one week, NFL fans must hope that Smith and Goodell are holding a celebratory news conference together rather than ones in separate locations like on Friday.

Otherwise, the silence in negotiations that would likely occur between both sides would be deafening.