Posted: Thursday February 17, 2011 12:12PM ; Updated: Thursday February 17, 2011 12:35PM
Don Banks

Behind the rhetoric: What fair deal in NFL labor debate will look like

Story Highlights

Everything will change if the NFLPA decides to move forward with decertification

Conceding to 18-game season likely only way for players to get money they want

In the end, it could be the agents that play mediator to owners and players

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The NFL is poised to lock out its players if a new collective bargaining agreement isn't reached before March 4.
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Like moths to light, we in the media tend to gravitate to the conflict that invariably comes to dominate a story like the NFL's looming labor battle. The back-and-forth dramas that have recently surfaced in the absence of any real news on the negotiation front (see the alleged Jerry Richardson versus Peyton Manning faceoff) seemingly have weeks and perhaps months remaining before they run their depressing course.

But I spent considerable time this week talking to sources on both sides of the labor front, asking what comes after the posturing and the hard-line rhetoric begins to die down and the real negotiating begins. What will eventually come forth in the way of agreement between NFL owners and the league's players union, even though the two sides haven't really begun to talk to one another in a meaningful way?

What would a fair deal entail? What are the likely building blocks that will wind up as part of any agreement? And is this showdown destined to end up being resolved in the courts years from now, with the two principals dependent upon someone else's opinion of an equitable resolution? Hello, Judge Doty.

Granted, trying to divine what lies far, far ahead in the NFL's labor stand-off is a little like trying to write about the outcome of a game while the two opponents are still engaged in a pre-game pushing and shoving match in the tunnel (think Miami at Notre Dame, circa 1988). It's an exercise in projection, based on past labor battles and trying to accurately read the tea leaves as they currently exist.

In talking to some informed league and union sources this week, I tried to get them to look beyond the sobering recent developments regarding canceled negotiation sessions, legal maneuvering and contentious behind-closed-doors exchanges between owners and players. My question was, whenever labor peace finally resurfaces in the NFL, what will it look like?

"I don't think anybody really knows where it's going,'' said one NFL club executive. "Things aren't off to a good start. But at the end of the day it's a negotiation, and sometimes those can come together quickly, like it did in 2006. I'm going to try to remain optimistic until it all goes the other way. I refuse to believe that [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell and [NFLPA executive director] DeMaurice Smith want that as their legacy, that they let the game stop.''

Haircut by scalpel or machete?

Optimism for a settlement any time before late this offseason is pretty scarce on both sides of the players-management divide. Most believe we're looking at the beginning of what will be a long, hard slog to a new deal, with the owners' apparent intention to stage a lockout after the March 3 expiration of the current CBA met by the NFLPA's decision at some point to file for decertification as a union and pursue anti-trust litigation against the league.

The union is thought to view the pursuit of that legal remedy as its best leverage to both potentially force a new labor agreement and keep the game going in the meantime, while the case works its way through the legal system. History certainly backs up that perception. The league is contesting the legitimacy of the union's decertification plans -- the first step of which was the filing of an unfair labor practice charge against the union this week -- to maintain its right to lock out the players and avoid having restraint of trade anti-trust lawsuits filed. You can't decertify on paper only without making a sham of that section of labor law, the NFL contends.

But despite the question of when and if those two dramatic maneuvers will be employed, there are some components that appear likely to be part of any eventual deal, sources say. Though the jigsaw puzzle that will be the next CBA hasn't taken shape yet, most expect it to contain the following:

• A rookie wage scale that takes a sizable chunk from the pool of money used to pay the league's unproven first-year players and gives it to both veterans and retired players. No one on the union side is opposed to getting a more equitable pay scale in place for rookies, as long as the subtracted funds still go to players.

• An 18-game regular-season schedule, which the players currently oppose but may be the only way that allows the math to work for them to not take too big a financial hit under a new CBA. Concessions clearly will have to be made to the players on several fronts to make the 18-game season palatable from a health standpoint.

• Expanded forfeiture clauses that allow clubs to recoup signing bonuses and monies from players who violate the league's personal-conduct policies. Sources on both sides say no one is willing to go to the wall to protect the bank accounts of the Albert Haynesworths and Donte Stallworths of the league.

• Perhaps some modification of the salary-cap system, in which the floor of the cap (the minimum a club can spend on player salaries, which was $108 million in 2009) would be raised to help offset the lowering of the cap ceiling (to reflect the reduction of player costs that owners seek). Such a move would help protect against the teams that habitually spend below the cap ceiling.

• And lastly, the biggest issue of all, the reworking of the revenue split between players and owners Players currently get almost 60 percent once a little more than $1 billion is deducted off the top of a $9 billion-plus revenue pool. The owners are determined to almost double those expense credits to $2 billion off the top and then drop the revenue split to much closer to 50 percent, citing their stadium debt level and grow-the-game costs, while the players want to protect as much of their majority slice as possible.

"The owners are trying to test the resolve of the players, because they think that history says the players will cave at some point,'' one longtime players agent said. "I think the players know they're going to take a haircut in this deal. But they think it can be done with a scalpel, and the owners want to use a machete.

"It seems like DeMaurice Smith thinks he can come out of this with his head held high and get roughly the same deal the players have now, but I disagree with that. I think the owners are more prepared and more unified this time. I think they do want a lockout, because they think they won't get their best deal without one. It'll hurt them, too, but they know the players will be hurting more.''

How to re-slice the revenue pie is everything

Though there are peripheral issues like the 18-game season and the rookie wage scale that both sides consider significant, the crux of the NFL's labor negotiations will revolve around where the line is re-drawn in regards to the split of revenues between owners and players.

"The rest are really side issues,'' the NFL club executive said. "If you drew a circle representing these negotiations, a dollar sign in the middle would be the heart of it. Once that piece is in place, how to fairly split the revenues, the rest of it will come together. The other issues, those are outliers and what-ifs that can be figured out.''

The owners are seeking to take roughly another $750 million to $1 billion off the top of the league's $9 billion-plus revenue pool, and it's the fight for that "new money'' that will dominate these labor talks. The players have been getting nearly 60 percent of those dollars since the 2006 CBA, and now they will fight to hold onto as much of the pie as possible.

"It's about the money, that's the whole deal,'' another NFL club executive said. "They're arguing over at least three-quarters of a billion dollars and that's pretty real money. It's just about how to make the economics work and re-divvy up the pie. But it's scary right now, because we're two weeks out from the CBA expiring, and they're not even talking. Nobody's blinking.''
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