With the end of lockout close, what exactly have we learned?
Negotiation was the key to a deal, but the threat of litigation was necessary too
As the court decisions showed, there was no right or wrong side in negotiations
In the end, as always, deadlines fuel urgency to make a deal
With apologies to Chamberlain (that would be Neville, not Wilt), it appears that NFL labor peace in our time is nearly at hand. We can spend the next few days quibbling about how "close'' the two sides have to get before they're unequivocally "close to a deal,'' but why bother with the tedious contractual details? Let's jump the gun and get right to the many lessons we've learned throughout this four-plus-month national ordeal of injunction filings, court hearings and dueling press conferences.
It was a catchy little slogan, and made for a rather slick but unconvincing video on behalf of the NFL Players Association's cause, but we all know the "Let Them Play'' spiel was never really what this long stand-off was about. "Let Them Pay'' would have been more accurate, because from day one the players were trying to protect as much financial ground as possible, and the NFL owners were trying to seize some back.
Fundamentally it didn't get any more complicated than that. It wasn't about the love of competition and players who just want to play the game. It was about the love of compensation, and both sides trying to keep as much as possible of it for themselves. A business negotiation from start to finish. Case closed.
He may be a Yankee Doodle Dandy of a federal mediator in most cases, but George (S.) Cohen didn't really move the ball forward very much when he had the players and the owners meeting together in his Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service office in Washington D.C. back in those frosty days of February and March (both inside and outside of the building).
Though he initially won praise from both sides for his steady-handed work in trying to get the two sides to agree at the bargaining table, his luster eventually faded. In fact, a league source told me last week that face-to-face negotiations got off to such an acrimonious start last winter in part because Cohen requested the two sides meet in a series of small groups at his office, which led to the players feeling greatly disrespected by the owners and taking exception with the lack of direct involvement by the principals on the league side.
"We followed what Cohen wanted, with those wacky small-group meetings, and all it did was make the players feel like we were disrespecting them,'' a league source said. "That was a misjudgment on our part. The progress came when all the principals were in the same room talking to one another. That kind of revived the respect level and led to open-mindedness in regards to the other side.''
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's constant mantra throughout the long months of negotiations was that negotiation, not litigation, was the proper forum to resolve the issues that separated the players and owners. In the end, that was of course proven correct, because the 2011 season had a much better shot of unfolding as planned if the two sides talked face-to-face rather than via legal brief.
But let's not be simplistic. Negotiation was the answer, but you can't discount the fact that both sides negotiated much more realistically once the threat of continued litigation -- and losing via that route -- was in play. Kind of a twist on the old Reagan line about his approach to dealing with the Cold War-era Soviet Union: "Trust, but verify.'' Negotiation alone could have proved to be an endless exercise. The courts provided a much-needed dose of smelling salts under the nose of both owners and players.
Speaking of the courts, boy, do they speak with forked tongue. I know, a real news flash. But judges David Doty and Susan Nelson in Minnesota certainly seemed to consider the players as being on the cause of right, and put the NFLPA on a legal winning streak. But then the appeals court in St. Louis repeatedly ruled on behalf of the owners and buttressed their case that the lockout wasn't a travesty of justice, but an accepted and legal course of action in a labor negotiation such as this.
In other words, neither side was completely right, or completely wrong. That's one reason all the partisans who wanted to elevate this high-stakes financial negotiation to the level of a showdown between good versus evil sounded so silly and short-sighted all along. Right and wrong in this case often depended on whose court you happened to be in that day.
For several years as the NFL's labor issue approached on the horizon, the conventional wisdom said that the league would never get a new CBA executed with the players until it successfully grappled with the big-market, small-market divide that separated the concerns of owners such as Dallas' Jerry Jones, Washington's Daniel Snyder and New England's Robert Kraft from those of Buffalo's Ralph Wilson, Cincinnati's Mike Brown and Jacksonville's Wayne Weaver.
Uh, not so much. That disparity most assuredly hasn't evaporated, and we're still on the cusp of labor peace. As long as, you know, the big-market owners persuade most of the medium-sized-market owners to vote their way and approve a new CBA next week in Atlanta. Over what is likely to be the objections of a few small-market owners. You can almost count on that.
Oh, the rhetoric we heard. And the constant supply of screaming headlines it created. Carolina owner Jerry Richardson wrecking everything by speaking snidely to Peyton Manning and Drew Brees about how to run a business. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson likening his NFL career to "modern-day slavery.'' Some unknown (and melodramatic) owner accusing NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith of acting like "a psycho girlfriend'' who doesn't know what he wants. And where to even begin with the litany of verbal salvos aimed in poor Mr. Goodell's direction?
But in the end, it's funny how money can wind up speaking the loudest. Not to mention provide the balm that soothes and heals all wounds. Bygones may not be bygones in every sense of the word, but if the checks start clearing again for everyone involved, I predict the level of discourse will take on a kinder, gentler tone in the days, weeks and months ahead. Call it a hunch.
There was no shortage of dumb ideas during the lockout. On both sides. Stressing over money can do that to normally smart, clear-thinking people. Here are a just a few examples:
-- The players union contemplating a boycott of the NFL draft by the incoming rookies, who were the only ones guaranteed to lose money and leverage in whatever new collective bargaining agreement came about. Fortunately the NFLPA realized it had a Hindenburg of a public relations move on its hands and backed away from the draft boycott brainstorm in favor of a midtown Manhattan party for the newbies. Who doesn't like a party?
-- The NFL showed its lack of foresight by making draft eligible quarterbacks throw to unfamiliar receivers at their pro day workouts because it would be a violation of lockout no-contact policies to have them play pitch and catch with current NFL players who attended those schools. Really? Was that a crucial element to the league's negotiation strategy? No wonder it took more than four months to get this thing settled.
-- The whole public relations campaign of writing letters to the other side that was waged for weeks this spring went over like the proverbial you-know-what in church. For a while there, all the two sides did was write letters responding to the most recent letter from the folks in the enemy camp. It was like passing snotty notes in junior high, but with better penmanship. The missives convinced absolutely no one of anything, but they did manage to consistently inflame the situation and prolong the stalemate.
-- The dueling Twitter wars by league and union spokesmen quickly got tiresome, too. At times, 140 characters were way, way too many. And while I'm at it, what's up with all the reporters openly advocating for one side or another in this labor fight? Does that mean they get to cheer or boo just as loudly in the press box for either the Saints or the Packers on the NFL's opening night this season? If it's all about picking which team you want/think should win and throwing your full and vocal support behind them, what's the difference?
It's probably too early to declare clear-cut winners or losers when a deal isn't even finished and committed to paper yet, but I'd have to say DeMaurice Smith is destined to be considered one of the victors. The new union chief proved up to the challenge and is definitely in a stronger position today with his constituents than he was at the start of this negotiation.
I don't believe Smith started out well from a tone-setting standpoint, given the perception of arrogance he gave off publicly, but he obviously improved his game as he went on, and he shouldn't have to suffer in comparison with his predecessor, Gene Upshaw, after this deal is done.
As for Goodell, he's been well-battered and bruised by this process, but I don't think he comes out of this a loser, by any means. If the NFL gains labor peace for the next eight to 10 years, without sacrificing anything on the schedule other than one preseason game, that's a big, fat win in a lot of ways.
I fully expect the bitterness of this labor fight to pass in due time, and fairly quickly. Some players may always loath him after this, but who really cares? There will be plenty other players who will be shaking his hand on the field when he shows up before a game this season. I predict that in five years we won't be looking back and saying that Goodell's tenure as commissioner was ruined by the lockout of 2011. If things go badly for him, the past six months won't be the reason he struggles.
This is going to sound heretical, or at least ironic coming from a guy who's paid to cover the NFL year-round, but I think we all were forced to discover there is indeed life without free agency, mini-camps and those all-important OTAs in the offseason. Or at least I did. Whose appetite for the NFL in the fall hasn't been whetted after having to endure this offseason? But isn't that kind of how it's supposed to work?
And if it comes to this, and I think it will, we'll all survive without watching even those scintillating first two series of the annual Hall of Fame game next month.
Repeat after me, and let's all pledge to never forget this time: Absolutely nothing happens in the NFL without the urgency of a deadline forcing the issue. February, March, April, May, June and half of July came and went in the CBA talks, and to some degree it was all preamble and foreplay until this week. Why? Because some real money was finally at stake once the preseason schedule was threatened.
I'm not saying we all wasted our time and energy paying attention to every little blip in the labor negotiations these past five months, when we could have just tuned in at the very last second in mid-July and saved ourselves a gigantic headache.... Wait a second, that's exactly what I'm saying.