Owners' meetings yet to yield any hope

BY Alex Marvez • January 18, 2011

He sounded like every other team owner repeating the party line when asked to assess the state of labor talks with the NFL Players Association.

"Our commissioner wants to get (a deal) done," Bob McNair told FOXSports.com as the Houston Texans founder scurried from a Tuesday meeting with his cohorts about the expiring collective bargaining agreement. "I think we're being very reasonable. Hopefully the union will be, too, and we'll be successful."

McNair acknowledged such sentiment, however, is based largely on wishful thinking. Quizzed whether he could name anything specific that is fueling such optimism, a stone-faced McNair shook his head.

"No. I really can't," he said.

McNair isn't the only one. The NFL and its players union are engaged in a Cold War-style standoff. Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith are the Kennedy and Khrushchev in this impasse — or vice-versa, depending on your point of view.

Each has his finger on the proverbial red button. Should either side press it, the prospects of a 24th consecutive season without a work stoppage will become enveloped in a mushroom cloud.

The fallout from a business standpoint could be just as devastating. The NFL is riding a wave of unprecedented popularity and financial success. The league-record $9 billion in revenue generated in 2009 will be shattered when this season's cash haul is announced. Television ratings are booming.

"The interest is so great in so many different areas," Goodell said during a Tuesday news conference. "Fans are finding new ways to engage (the product), whether it's technology or following the league through fantasy football. ... Fans want football."

And the best is yet to come: a Super Bowl XLV matchup guaranteed to feature a can't-lose combination of teams from two of the nation's three biggest television markets (New York Jets and Chicago Bears) and two of its most iconic franchises (Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers) on Feb. 6 on FOX.

Common sense tells you common ground can be reached between the league and its players union before the CBA expires on March 4. There is no other reason for optimism.

Jeff Pash, the league's lead CBA negotiator, said Tuesday that a "major formal bargaining session with full bargaining committees" hadn't taken place since before Thanksgiving. The NFLPA still is pushing for complete team-by-team financial information — a potential bargaining chip that Goodell has indicated the league remains unwilling to provide.

This explains why the NFLPA is seeking pressure points to force the NFL's hand. The union has filed litigation on substantive labor issues such as the NFL's television contract and a collusion claim involving the league's 2010 restricted free agents. Both complaints will be decided by a special master.

In the meantime, the NFL risks losing its massive surge of momentum for every second the standoff continues.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Boom?

Maybe.

History and implicit pressure says both sides will budge as the CBA deadline approaches. I agree with what an NFL writing comrade (Jason Cole) astutely opined Tuesday in Atlanta: Crunch time begins in earnest Feb. 23 when league and union officials converge upon the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

That leaves only nine days before Armageddon, but wiggle room can be bartered. For example, the NFL and NFLPA extended the previous CBA expiration deadline in 2006 because a deal was close to completion.

Even so, the environment is far more toxic now. Goodell is commissioner instead of Paul Tagliabue. The latter had a buddy-buddy relationship with late NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw. Smith, a lawyer turned union leader, doesn't have the same long-standing NFL ties. Smith has shown far more willingness to take an outside legal route than a former player like Upshaw.

There also is the hubris factor. Some owners believe they were duped into signing a 2006 CBA extension that proved too lucrative for the players, especially after the shift in the nation's economic fortunes. An anonymous group of red-faced tycoons opted out of the current CBA agreement in 2008.

"Everybody is better informed," McNair said about these negotiations. "We know what we're dealing with and are better prepared."

That means unlike the last time, NFL owners are determined to push the envelope and digest the labor agreement more meticulously before signing.

"Entities are revisiting how they do business and their model," said Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who is arguably the shrewdest billionaire among his peers. "The time to adjust is not when you're driving off the cliff. We're experiencing that in this country to some degree today. Other countries are having the same issues. The time to have done it was back before those real problems hit. To me, when I think about what we're doing, we are responsibly able to look ahead and think about the National Football League as we want to see it in years to come."

This means radical changes in the league's current landscape. An 18-game regular-season schedule that assuredly will take a greater physical toll on players, despite Goodell's push for reduced offseason programs in the name of bettered health. The elimination of obscene rookie contracts. Changes in the drug-testing program that likely would result in more physically invasive screening (i.e. blood testing) for the detection of banned PEDs such as growth hormone.

All of this is viable — provided the NFL also makes concessions on topics that carry weight with the NFLPA.

"We've exchanged substantive communication with them," NFLPA executive George Atallah told FOXSports.com. "They need to respond. They've opted out (of the CBA). The onus is on them give us something that makes sense."

Ah, back to sense — as in common sense. Here's the reality despite all the doom-and-gloom rhetoric: There will be a CBA agreement reached. The most important question is when and whether an entire offseason and — dare I say it —preseason get ruined in the meantime.

"There's always optimism. There has to be," Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said after Tuesday's meeting. "I'm a believer that you stay at things and that's how you get something done. But it is a difficult process. If you follow it blow by blow, it's tough. You go up and down on everything that happens week to week, day to day. You can get nauseated. Eventually, you've got to have patience, perseverance and wisdom. Those virtues will carry you through.

"We will get something done eventually."

At least both sides can agree on this: Eventually can't come soon enough.



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