Why labor hope is scarce, but it shouldn't have flown out the window.
My 7,000-word SI bio-story on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell either got lost in the fog of the Super Bowl or bored you all to tears, because not many of you have responded to me about it. But there are three passages I'd like to share with you from the story. With the frustrations of last week's canceled negotiating session between players and owners (canceled by the owners) and then Goodell calling off this week's monthly owners meeting in Philadelphia to discuss the state of the talks, I understand why most of you would be having feelings of doom about the 2011 season right now.
In the past few days, there have been reports that players offered to take 50 percent of all revenue without any owner exemptions for expenses (owners currently get a $1-billion credit, after which the pie is split), radio and print reports that Carolina owner Jerry Richardson said something to demean player leaders Drew Brees and Peyton Manning at a Feb. 5 meeting, and reports that the union is angry owners decided unilaterally to stop meeting after one proposal last week instead of for the two days they'd been scheduled to bargain. If you're a fan, you're justified in thinking all will soon be lost and the season will be affected.
That's understandable. It's been 24 years since the last NFL games were lost due to a work stoppage, so you don't know how to feel when we're in the middle of such a time. But I want to stress two things before I get to three Goodell passages you should remember when the hour is dark:
1. Sports negotiations are deadline deals filled with both sides shooting at each other. The March 3 deadline is fairly meaningless, when you think about it. What happens in March that's vital to the regular season? Think of that word -- vital. Nothing. Is free agency vital to a season? No.
2. Players and owners have shown they can survive abridged seasons. Except for the March 2006 owners' agreement with players, which everyone now sees was decidedly one-sided in favor of the players, no deals get done early, particularly in football. In 1982, when the league's schedule was reduced from 16 to nine regular-season games, a new CBA was ratified on Nov. 17. In 1987, players struck after the second week, were out for four weeks, and resumed play in Week 7. In the meantime, one week was canceled and three were played with replacement players and NFL guys who crossed the picket line.
I covered the Giants that year, and the season was a thing of ridicule, with stars like Lawrence Taylor crossing the picket line to play virtual pickup games (Taylor faced a truck driver from Illinois recruited to play left tackle for the Bills in the last Giants' strike game in Buffalo, and the guy was called for five penalties on LT). So don't think the threat of missed games is going to cause players or owners to cave. They may cave eventually, but I still think games will be lost. Now, will the game be tarnished? Of course. Ruined? No.
Having said those two things, I'll tell you something I experienced trailing Goodell for parts of a couple of months. Other than the league's failure to get a team in Los Angeles -- a drive he spearheaded -- he didn't fail at many negotiations, or in making many deals. I got the feeling that, as in many negotiations, with many smart negotiators, Goodell's feeling when asked about these talks last season was basically, It's not time to make a deal. Neither side is going to be serious about making a strong offer now. Why force it, and then have to live with an offer you feel is too one-sided in favor of the other side? (Those are my characterizations, not his, to be clear.)
I bring you three anecdotes from my story:
Jerry Jones suing the league, 1995: Goodell was the lone dissenting voice in the league office when Jerry Jones sued the NFL in 1995 to be able to use his Cowboy logo locally in sales. The NFL lumped local and national rights to beer and soft drinks and burgers at that point; Jones thought he could make far more selling on his own than simply taking one-30th of the revenue the league raised by lumping all teams together. "I believed Jerry was right,'' Goodell said. "And I thought we were wrong on suing him. We didn't need to go there. So we were in a staff meeting, and I said Jerry had some good ideas; maybe we could sell sponsorship without the club marks. And the reaction was, 'No way. This is what we've always done.' ''
But that's what ended up happening. The league agreed to do what Jones, and Goodell, wanted -- have the league empowered to have an official soft drink of the NFL (which is now Pepsi), and have each team sell local soft drink rights (16 teams have Coca-Cola, 16 have Pepsi). It's been a boon to business. Jones estimates in the 15 years of the new NFL sponsor-nomics, the Cowboys have made more than $100 million more than they would have made doing things the old way. Consultant Marc Ganis of Sportscorp Ltd., estimates the 32 franchises are at least $2 billion richer because of the new way.
Replacing the Browns in Cleveland, 1995-96: The league woke up one November morning to the news that Art Modell was moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Such a storied NFL city, with such tradition, without a franchise? Disaster. The locals were so ticked off at Browns owner Art Modell, and at the league for allowing the move to happen, that whoever was dispatched from the league to calm the masses was Public Enemy No. 2, behind Modell. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue sent Goodell to Cleveland to try to work out a deal to put an existing or new franchise back in the city. "Roger took a ball that was flatter than a pancake and blew it up,'' said Tagliabue.
In early negotiations, it was clear a new stadium was vital to the process, and Goodell told the city's chief negotiator, Fred Nance, that fans would have to help fund the stadium through the issuance of personal seat licenses in all seats in the stadium's lower bowl. Making fans pay even $200 or $400 per seat for the privilege of buying tickets had never been done in Cleveland, and Nance and mayor Michael White fought back. Goodell met some longtime Browns fans, who pleaded with him to keep costs down in a city where the economy was tanking. Finally, Goodell came up with a plan: exempt the 10,000 seats in the Dawg Pound from PSLs. That did it.
Nance and the mayor agreed to the plan. Still, Goodell would need 12 of 21 City Council member to vote for whatever stadium plan was agreed to by the city and NFL, and even after the city agreed, only seven council members were solid yes votes. That left Goodell to politic the council, along with the mayor and Nance. They got six votes to change. The stadium project, with the Browns keeping their names and colors and records, was approved 13-8.
"There would not have been a deal without Roger,'' said Nance. "No way. He was a guy who came into a city under siege, and he was hard-nosed and he was stubborn. But he was sensitive to figuring out what we had to have to make a deal, and how much he could compromise knowing he had the owners to answer to with whatever he did.''
The network renegotiations, 2009: Goodell and NBC Universal boss Dick Ebersol are close friends. In 2004, when Ebersol was mourning the loss of his 14-year-old son, Teddy, in a plane crash, Goodell got Tagliabue and then-NFLPA head Gene Upshaw to agree to fund a suite each in the dormitory the Ebersol family had donated to Teddy's private school in Connecticut. Dick Ebersol was overcome with emotion when he toured the dorm and saw little plaques outside the two rooms, side by side, noting the NFL's and NFLPA's generosity. It's a gesture from Goodell that the Ebersol family will never forget.
In the 2009 negotiations for a two-year extension, through 2013, to NBC's contract with the NFL, the league was stuck on a rights fee of $600 million per year for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. That's what NBC was currently paying. The difference: The current deal included two Super Bowls. The new two-year deal included none. Ebersol and Goodell had a few back-and-forth discussions, and Goodell finally said the NFL wouldn't take a dime less. "There was a coldness and a 'that's it' kind of tone in Roger's voice that was chilling,'' Ebersol said.
And this is what Ebersol heard in Goodell's voice: "At his heart, Roger can be a cold son of a bitch. I think the people on the other side of the negotiating table are going to hear that in the coming months. This really nice man is going to show mettle, and he's going to do what he thinks is best for the National Football League. It's what he's always done.''
Now, what does all that mean? I don't know. All I know is that I doubt Goodell has shown much of his real hand yet. And he won't for some time.