NFL, union afraid of taking big step
Looks like the NFL and the players' union have gone to the prevent defense.
With the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement staring right at them, they delayed any decisions other than approving two extensions, first for 24 hours, then for a week. That doesn't mean they're close to a new deal that would avoid the first NFL work stoppage in nearly a quarter-century.
It does indicate that both sides are fearful of using their most powerful option: a lockout by the owners, decertification by the union so it can pursue antitrust action in the courts.
Each side had its reasons to avoid breaking off negotiations.
For months, the league seemed comfortable with talk about locking out the players, never actually saying it would happen, but never denying it was a key option. In the last few days, though, the NFL and its 32 owners backed away from playing that trump card, with two non-owners playing pivotal roles: a judge and a president.
U.S. District Court Judge David Doty made an important ruling in favor of the NFL Players Association, declaring the league violated its agreement with the union by collecting $4 billion in rights fees from TV partners for the 2011 season even though it could be threatened by a work stoppage. The union argued that violated an agreement which says the NFL must make good-faith efforts to maximize revenue for players.
''The record shows that the NFL undertook contract renegotiations to advance its own interests and harm the interests of the players,'' wrote Doty, who has overseen NFL labor issues since he presided over the 1993 decision that cleared the way for free agency.
Although Doty hasn't ruled on what will happen to the money - the union had asked that it be placed in escrow until the end of any lockout - it was a blind-side hit for the owners. Doty's decision showed the NFL calculated whether to make TV deals based on whether they would help the league's position in CBA talks. And now the owners may not be able to count on about $125 million per team, not far off the 2009 salary cap.
Perhaps the last thing the NFL wants is to wind up back in Doty's Minneapolis courtroom, fighting off injunction requests filed by the likes of Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, who would be accusing the league of restraint of trade.
But maybe the most effective roadblock to a lockout this week came from the White House.
President Barack Obama used just the right touch to put the onus on the owners and the players to settle things.
Asked Thursday if we would intervene in the labor dispute, the president said: ''I'm a big football fan but I also think that for an industry that's making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out how to divide it up in a sensible way and be true to their fans, who are the ones who obviously allow for all the money that they're making. So my expectation and hope is that they will resolve it without me intervening, because it turns out I've got a lot of other stuff to do.''
In a matter of a few days, the owners looked bad in court, and in the court of public opinion.
Not that the players came off unscathed by Obama's remarks, or in the negotiations. The persistent threat of decertification and a seeming willingness to take their chances with lawsuits under Doty's jurisdiction left the impression they were ready to put the season in danger.
But they didn't go that route this week, either. Why?
Perhaps the players feared they actually could lose in court, and that the process could take longer than they want, jeopardizing massive paydays for the superstars and simply large paydays for other players. Or that the union relinquishing its bargaining power on behalf of the players was too drastic a move.
Or maybe NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, in his first negotiations with the league, sees decertification as admitting ineffectiveness on the union's part.
The union still could take that path. And the owners still might shut down a league coming off its best TV ratings and unmatched popularity among American sports.
But the fact neither side was that bold this week should be encouraging.