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An air of uncertainty filled an upstairs conference room at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service headquarters in downtown Washington on the morning of March 2. For the first time in 13 meetings with mediator George Cohen, the 10 owners on the NFL's labor committee were sitting across the negotiating table from the players on the union's executive committee.
Only one day remained before the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, and everyone understood that a failure to find middle ground before 11:59 p.m. the next day would result in the league's first work stoppage since 1987.
Cohen began the session by giving each owner an opportunity to speak. Jerry Jones, never one to pass up center stage, tried to lighten the mood by talking of his upbringing and the business acumen that led to his purchase of the Cowboys 22 years ago. The tenor changed when he began discussing how two years of negotiations had failed to bring the sides closer. What he said next, with arched eyebrows, helped steer the situation past the point of no return.
"I don't think we've got your attention," Jones said to the players, several of whom recounted the incident to SI. "You clearly don't understand what we're saying, and we're not hearing what you're saying. So I guess we're going to have to show you to get your attention."
Jones tapped his fists together for emphasis—the players interpreted it as a sign that a lockout was coming—then stood and walked toward the door. As he reached the end of the table, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, another labor hawk, began to rise, but Robert Kraft of the Patriots, who was sitting next to him, put a hand on Richardson's forearm and kept him from going.
If Jones's intention was to intimidate the players, he failed. "I think everybody in the room thought it was overly dramatic, almost hilarious," one player said. "It was like a Jerry Maguire moment. You know, 'I'm leaving. Who's coming with me?' I know it didn't scare any of us."
Jones's action, however, did help convince the players that the owners were serious about shutting down the game if the union didn't acquiesce to their core demand: an increase in the "expense credit," the amount the owners take off the top before sharing revenues with the players. That figure was approximately $1 billion in 2010, and the owners were asking for an additional $1 billion for such expenses as stadium construction and renovations, international games and the development of NFL.com and the NFL Network. The owners' attitude also made the players more adamant that franchises should open their books to prove they needed the increase, especially in light of the record $9.3 billion the NFL generated in 2010.
Talks finally skidded over the cliff's edge last Friday. The league had put a comprehensive—and on some points player-friendly—proposal on the table, but the Players Association deemed the offer insufficient, renounced its rights as a union and filed an injunction against the lockout and an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL in federal court in Minnesota. Among the 10 plaintiffs named in the suit are star quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. The league responded as expected by locking out the players, and now the only certainty is that the next stage in the drama will be in the courts.
How did matters get to this point? Over money and trust. Put aside the talk about an 18-game season, a rookie wage scale and changes in benefits for active and retired players, all fairly standard collective bargaining matters. These negotiations were about how to split revenues that are projected to continue to rise in coming years.
In 2006 the owners voted 30--2 in favor of the last CBA, but they quickly came to believe that the agreement—which gave players about 60% of revenues after the expense credit—was too costly, so in 2008 they announced that they would exercise their right to opt out of the final two years of the CBA. "The 2006 deal was the first time we felt like there was a fair deal," says Chiefs guard Brian Waters, a member of the players' executive committee. "So to come back here and be in the position we're in. ... You feel like you're back to the point where you're not being taken seriously."