Mediator wins plaudits for work on NFL talks

March 10, 2011

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 1987.

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 mediator.

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 record.

''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 Cohen.

''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 fight.

''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 balance.''

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.