National Football League
Lack of trust makes talks laborious
National Football League

Lack of trust makes talks laborious

Published Mar. 10, 2011 12:00 a.m. ET

It's time for George Cohen to add background music when mediating labor talks between the NFL and the players union.

He should start by setting Billy Joel's "A Matter of Trust" on a perpetual loop.

That might remind leaders from both sides how they've gotten to this point.

The NFL Players Association once trusted the league enough to accept a collective bargaining agreement without teams having to completely open their accounting ledgers. Gene Upshaw, the union's late executive director, simply wanted the players to receive what he deemed a fair share of revenue. He didn't care how the owners spent their money unless it affected his constituency.


The arrangement worked for both sides. The league and players both enjoyed record-setting financial prosperity and fan popularity. The work stoppages that crippled the nation's three other professional sports leagues were avoided.

Should that labor peace end late Friday afternoon (the deadline for union decertification is 5 p.m. ET) or that evening (the CBA expires at 11:59 p.m. ET), mistrust will be the main reason. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has demanded unprecedented financial information. He wants specific breakdowns and profitability data before agreeing to a restructured revenue-sharing plan that would give the owners an additional $800 million annually toward expenses and stadium projects. That money would be in addition to the roughly $1 billion the owners already receive in expense credits before revenue is split.

"We have consistently requested access to fully audited financial statements since May 2009, well before even our first collective bargaining meeting," Smith said after Wednesday's negotiating session at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Washington D.C. "We believe that is the appropriate information to analyze the league's request for a multibillion check written by the players back to the owners."

NFL counsel and lead negotiator Jeff Pash countered that the league has provided the NFLPA with "more detailed financial information than it has ever had before." That may be as far as the NFL will go, because every franchise besides Green Bay is a privately owned entity. Many team owners don't feel obligated to provide specific data to the NFLPA. Some don't want to tip their business secrets to other owners in a competitive environment. Others may find themselves second-guessed or even embarrassed should dubious expenditures come to light.

The final hours of negotiating — sans a third extension — will be the ultimate game of chicken. Wealthy, headstrong owners in Thursday's session such as Jerry Jones, Mike Brown and Dean Spanos rarely blink at the bargaining table. Smith also has yet to budge. That's evidenced by the NFL now being willing to accept $200 million less annually in expense credits than requested in initial negotiations.

The owners may be willing to surrender even more if it means keeping their books closed. But should Smith remain insistent upon full disclosure, a legal battle may be inevitable. Buoyed by favorable rulings in the court of Judge David Doty, the NFLPA could opt for litigation that would unseal that information.

But such a decision is risky. Litigation would take months, and there are no guarantees of an NFLPA victory. During that time, Smith would have the daunting task of trying to maintain player unity among his membership. That will become increasingly difficult should the work stoppage extend into the regular season and players begin missing paychecks. There also would be growing discontent among the NFL's 490 pending unrestricted free agents — a figure that constitutes about one-quarter of the NFLPA's current membership — if they can't test the market and cash in. NFL owners won't be facing the same financial pressures.

This is the kind of toxic environment that both sides have tried to avoid since NFLPA legal pressure led to the 1993 CBA that established the current free-agency system. Maybe the situation wouldn't have become so contentious and required federal mediation if Upshaw and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue were still in their previous posts.

Upshaw, though, may have wanted to break someone's neck (besides Joe Delamielleure's) had he learned the NFL hadn't negotiated in good faith on its television contracts. Doty ruled that the league secretly conspired to create a lockout fund totaling as much as $4 billion at the expense of receiving a better financial deal from the networks. The decision was announced as both sides were in the middle of what is now a third week under Cohen's auspices.

To borrow from another Billy Joel song, "Honesty is such a lonely word."

Smith was asked last Friday whether trust with the NFL was rebuilt and negotiations are being held in good faith. Smith's response: "When you say something about trust or raise issues about things like confidence, none of those things are repaired quickly."

Unfortunately, that same sentiment may apply to the divide in CBA talks with patience wearing thin and a deadline fast approaching.


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