The league repeatedly has said the players were more interested in settling the sides' differences through litigation than negotiation, assuming they'd get a more favorable deal in the courts. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and the players contend that the league was stringing them along, and that an uninterrupted season would be threatened the longer the talks ensued. "Decertification allows us to negotiate and get a deal in place while we continue to play," said Colts center Jeff Saturday, another executive committee member. "What we don't want to happen is, the owners lock us out and we have to wait six months before we can decertify and file the lawsuits."
The players' contention that the owners had long been planning for a lockout was buttressed by a March 1 appellate ruling by U.S. Eighth District judge David Doty. He reversed a special master's decision that would have given the NFL access to $4 billion from its renegotiated TV contracts even if the 2011 season was canceled. Doty wrote: "The record shows that the NFL undertook contract renegotiations to advance its own interest and harm the interests of the players."
Evidence from the Doty hearing also revealed that the owners had anticipated a lockout as far back as 2008. Commissioner Roger Goodell testified that the NFL told Fox Sports that a refusal to provide lockout provisions in a new contract would be a "deal breaker." Such language, the players argue, indicated that the owners were more interested in strong-arming them than in getting a fair deal done.
To explain their insistence on transparency, players point to a separate 1992 antitrust lawsuit involving the NFL. In that case, Roger Noll, a Stanford economics professor, testified that the league's $1.3 billion in revenue was "substantially understated" because of the owners' accounting methods. For instance, Eagles owner Norman Braman reportedly paid himself a salary of $7.5 million in 1990 and recorded it under general expenses instead of profit. Against that backdrop, the players found it increasingly difficult to accept the NFL's need for additional expense credits without first seeing the teams' detailed financial statements.
Jeffrey Pash, the NFL's chief lawyer, says that planning for a lockout is accepted practice under labor law, and that collective bargaining, rather than litigation, remains the best way to settle the sides' differences. "We're not making a claim of financial distress, such that [opening the books] is required under labor laws. We told [the players] we'd give them five years' worth of aggregate leaguewide profitability information, confirmed by an independent accounting firm."
Owners also argue they were more flexible in the negotiations than the players. On Friday the two sides were $640 million apart on the 2011 salary cap number; the NFL offered to split the difference. The union, however, would not move from its best offer of an additional $137.5 million a year for four years without a detailed accounting of each team's books, a demand it had requested as early as May 2009. Says Pash, "In November '09 we asked for an 18 percent rollback, and we didn't get that either. Demands that you make before your first-ever face-to-face bargaining session might not be where you end up two years later."
Ultimately, players contend that the owners initiated the standoff, so the burden of proof rests with them. "Not once have the players asked for more money during this negotiation," Brees said on Friday. "Past players sacrificed a great deal to give us what we have now, and we will not lay down for a second to give that up."
It may come down to a court to decide if they have to.
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