Financial transparency may be next step to the NFL finding labor peace
Go behind the scenes to see how close negotiations were to blowing up
Five takeaways after watching the Packers Super Bowl DVD by NFL Films
Quotes of the Week, Tweets of the Week and 10 Things I Think I Think
I've got a bit of a different column for you this week. Because of the ever-shifting sands of this labor story, Sports Illustrated thought it foolish for our man on the scene in Washington, D.C., at week's end, senior writer Jim Trotter, to write a story for the magazine this week. Such a story could well have been overtaken by events of the week before the magazine hit mailboxes Wednesday and Thursday. I suggested that Jim write his story at the top of Monday Morning Quarterback, and the mag bosses and Jim agreed. So in a few paragraphs, you'll see how close these negotiations were to blowing up last Thursday.
First, I have three things to tease:
I think at some point this week you might see the owners give the players something they've wanted for a long time -- more financial transparency. That's a maybe, and I can't tell you if the transparency is going to be enough for the NFL Players Association. But I believe the only way the owners can truly make progress with the players is to give them at least some of what they've been saying for two years they had to have to make this deal work. They've got to see some real evidence that the owners are making significantly less money than the players believe they are. I would be surprised if this week goes by without the owners showing the players their books -- or at least more financial information than is required by the CBA.
Major League Soccer, a year ago, spent a couple of weeks locked up with this federal mediator the NFL and the players are using -- and both sides left the building swearing by George Cohen. "I don't know that we would have gotten a deal done without his help and his very calming demeanor,'' MLS commissioner Don Garber told me Sunday night. "A mediator can't do the deal, but judging by our experience, he can get people to move off very solid ideological points to the center.''
Garber knows the NFL people involved very well, because he was a career NFL executive before becoming MLS commissioner in 1999, and he thinks Cohen will be a big factor, in a positive way, this week. One of the player reps in the talks, U.S. superstar Landon Donovan, said last night: "The moment we -- me and some of the guys in the league who were a part of the negotiations last year -- saw George was going to be the mediator for the NFL, we all said basically the same thing: that we think the league and the players will get a deal done.''
Some football: The Super Bowl DVD of the Green Bay Packers comes out Tuesday, and there's good strategic and inside stuff in there. Such as the Steelers rallying in the second half, and Green Bay linebackers coach Kevin Greene talking to linebacker Clay Matthews before a crucial series with the momentum all Steelers, with defensive leader Charles Woodson out for the game with a broken collarbone: "Everybody looks up to Wood as being the leader," Greene says to his pupil. "He's gone. Nobody's rallying the troops. It is time. IT IS TIME.''
Matthews goes out to the field and, in the vital series, tells a teammate the ball's coming his way -- he can feel it. And here came Rashard Mendenhall, with Matthews sprinting at him. Big collision. Fumble. Packer ball. Momentum stemmed. "I read that!'' Matthews yells coming off the field. "I knew it was coming!'' Pretty good stuff in this DVD, but what else would you expect from NFL Films at the Super Bowl?
I'll be back with more detail on all three items, but first ...
Here is the dispatch from SI senior writer Jim Trotter, who was in Washington for the meetings late in the week and got a glimpse into the inner workings of the extension of the negotiations:
WASHINGTON -- After extending the negotiating deadline twice in as many days last week, the NFL's owners and players will restart collective bargaining talks Monday afternoon in the downtown offices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. While some consider this to be the most positive development in some time, the reality is the sides remain far apart when it comes to deciding how to slice a financial pie that generated $9.3 billion in revenues last season.
Before looking ahead to this week's negotiations and the new March 11 deadline, it's worth reflecting on what took place last week and how the sides were mere minutes from having the negotiations blow up. Consider:
With only five minutes to go before the union's deadline to decertify last Thursday -- a move that might have obliterated the NFL as we know it today -- a player walked into the negotiating room that included commissioner Roger Goodell, league attorney Jeff Pash, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and union president Kevin Mawae and declared: "We're done! We're decertifying."
It had been three years since the league announced its intentions to void the current labor pact, yet 66 formal negotiating sessions had failed to bring the sides significantly closer. And as the decertification deadline ticked closer, members of the union's executive committee began to feel the owners were stringing them along in hopes that the players would miss the deadline. The players believed their only real leverage was to decertify because it would allow the players to sue the league for alleged antitrust violations if the owners locked them out, as expected. With the window to file closing fast, union officials and executive committee members sat in a room one floor beneath where the power brokers were meeting and weighed their options one last time. Then they decided it was time to act.
At that point the aforementioned player -- whose name is being withheld because of the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations -- walked into the room upstairs, tapped Mawae on the shoulder and made a quick hand-across-the-throat gesture while making his decertification declaration.
According to sources, the union had a member of its legal team on the phone with the clerk of the court in Minneapolis, where U.S. District Judge David Doty presides over the case. Cooler heads ultimately prevailed, and the league agreed to the first of two extensions. Still, if anything could be taken from that brief glimpse behind the curtains, it's that the players know the issues and are prepared to stand up to the men who run the country's most powerful sports league.
On Tuesday of last week, two days before the initial deadline, three player reps for the Kansas City Chiefs e-mailed teammates to ask if they were still comfortable with decertification. Like every other team in the league, the Chiefs had unanimously authorized such a move in a vote during the 2010 season. Still, the threat of decertification was a speck on the horizon back then. Now it was a potentially foreboding monster. Within 24 hours, the reps received 35 responses. Each of them supported the move. By Thursday morning, eight more players reaffirmed their votes. Forty-three players, all with the same response.
"I don't know that guys were itching for a fight, but we have been preparing for this so we're not at all nervous about pulling the trigger or stepping into that world," says one player familiar with the negotiations. "We all agree that if we can get a deal done that is fair, then it's best to do it between the two sides. But we're prepared to do it through the courts if we have to. We've been stalled by them for so long. For two years they've been jerking us around, to be honest with you. On Wednesday their owners came to a meeting and said they were going to go to Dulles and have another meeting among themselves, then we would get back together that night to discuss things. Then they all got on planes and all went home and didn't tell us anything. They left us sitting in the mediation room for the second time.''
Adds the player: "It just feels like we're always coming up with a new way to please them. It feels from our side like we've bent over backwards and made a number of creative proposals to them, all without getting the financial justification that they need a new system. Then they do things like hop on a plane and leave without telling us that they're leaving. We're not overanxious to pull the trigger on decertification, but we're definitely not hesitant."
Clearly the league views the proceedings differently. One NFL source said the owners have been "fully engaged and fully responsive for almost two years" and have made "numerous proposals and counterproposals." The players believe otherwise, and their willingness to go toe-to-toe with the owners stems largely from their belief that they are better educated about the issues than at any point in the past three decades.
Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame guard who led the union for 25 years before dying of pancreatic cancer in 2008, liked to centralize information and power. He was focused on the end result and believed it was best for the players to only know so much, partly because he feared information leaks could be used by the other side during negotiations.
Smith, his successor, ran on a platform of transparency. He told the players that if they weren't committed to taking responsibility for their careers and futures, then someone other than him needed to be the executive director. Smith has refused to participate in any formal negotiating session without at least one player by his side, and he has consistently pushed his player advocates and player reps to keep the membership informed.
His mission statement has helped create a one-for-all attitude that's illuminated by the selfless acts of veterans such as star quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. The three are among the league's highest-paid players, yet they have agreed to be the lead plaintiffs if there is a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the league. Also, veteran Chiefs guard Brian Waters suggested creating a pool in which higher-paid veterans could anonymously contribute funds that could help struggling young players meet their living expenses during a lockout.
"It's something that had been on my mind for months," Waters says. "I was thinking about which group would be the most vulnerable if there was a lockout, and I thought it would be the guys who had more to lose because they had fewer resources to pay things like healthcare and day-to-day expenses. Most of those guys really need the money that comes from the offseason workout checks, as well as the checks that come from training camp. I used to be one of those guys. I was a college free agent who was cut and played in the World League, and coming into that second season that money was an integral part of paying my bills. I knew there were a number of guys who didn't have the medical savings and reimbursement accounts, and I knew there were a number of guys who weren't high draft picks, but I also knew this number as a whole was a small number on every team's roster."
It's often said that the character of a man is how he performs in times of adversity. That reality is not lost on NFLPA executive committee members, some of whom have discussed possibly being blackballed by the league for standing up and being vocal about what they feel is right.
"I wasn't involved in the union early in my career, partly because my dad was a player rep and I saw how he got discriminated against," Seahawks co-alternate Matt Hasselbeck told SI last March at the union's annual meeting. "They had a player strike in '82, and the next year the Patriots -- really, all the teams -- traded their player reps to the L.A. Raiders. The Raiders ended up winning the Super Bowl that year, so it wasn't all bad; but I just remember my first year as a rookie in 1998, as a sixth-round draft pick in Green Bay, someone at the team, someone who would decide if I would make the team or not, said to make sure you're not one of those player reps. I was like, 'Yes, sir.' Now he was probably joking; he said it with a laugh and he's a great guy. But for me that was a lot of pressure on a kid who was willing to do anything to make that team."
The pressure on both sides is enormous at the moment. Revenues and ratings hit all-time highs in 2010, and even in the second-worst economy in this country's history the league negotiated lucrative new TV deals, and, according to Judge Doty, strong-armed some companies into deals that included lockout protection for the owners.
A player familiar with the negotiations reiterated over the weekend that the union isn't looking for a fight, but fairness and financial transparency. However absent that, the players are willing to decertify and try their hand in court.
"We're ready to go," the anonymous player said. "If this is what it's going to take for them to negotiate fairly and take us seriously as partners, then let's do it. Honestly, most players come from the background where if their backs are being pushed against the wall they're going to fight back. They're not going to turn and cower. That's just the DNA of most NFL players, because that's what got us here. It's that survival skill and that ability to fight in pressure situations that has got us to this level. That's what you're seeing right now and will continue to see as we go forward."