We’ve been saying for nearly two years that one of the biggest challenge when it comes to sorting out the labor mess comes from figuring out precisely when the clock strikes 12.
Unless and until both sides believe that they are facing Threat Level: Midnight, neither side will move toward its bottom-line position. If one side makes the move prematurely, the other side will then try to squeeze the first side even lower.
A recent item from Jon Saraceno of USA Today addresses the issue. “I don’t know if the union has the intention of getting it done by then,” sports business expert Marc Ganis told Saraceno. “March 3 might not be a relevant date for them.”
It’s a fair point, but it may not be a relevant date for the league, either.
Though the league has huffed and puffed about offseason revenue losses that will be realized absent labor peace, possibly in an effort to get the union to believe that midnight is approaching even if it isn’t, the two sides have yet to roll up their sleeves and engage in intensive meetings aimed at getting a deal done. And it sounds as if not enough owners have come to the conclusion that it’s time to get serious about engaging in serious negotiations.
Commissioner Roger Goodell apparently is trying. “The main message he wanted to get across to owners was that we need to get serious at the bargaining table,” Steelers president and co-owner Art Rooney, II, told Saraceno regarding Goodell’s comments during recent ownership meetings in Texas. “I would hesitate to describe his attitude as frustrated, but certainly we’re heading into a critical timeframe in terms of getting this done. I think he recognizes there is a greater sense of urgency.”
Ganis believes that NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has an incentive for dragging his feet. “I suspect [Smith] has concluded that he cannot, in his first contract, agree to any modifications that the league is asking for unless he first appears very tough and takes both parties over a cliff,” Ganis said.
Others have privately expressed a greater degree of skepticism, theorizing that Smith’s personal agenda and aspirations compel him to take the union into a lockout, so that he can declare that his prophecy has been fulfilled — and so that he can acquire the maximum publicity that comes from being involved in a very public labor battle. Union sources dispute the notion that Smith is thinking in whole or in part about his own interests, whatever they may be.
From the owners’ perspective, their collective interest in paying the players less money makes an offseason lockout more and more likely. Indeed, the players won’t break until they start missing game checks, which means that a lockout that wipes out the offseason and chews into the regular season may be the only way that the owners will get what they want.
That’s why the message from the union hasn’t changed much if at all in the past year. “The players offered to play under the existing contract and [the NFL] said no,” NFLPA director of communications Carl Francis told Saraceno. “They have asked for more than a billion dollars in give-backs per year, but they continuously refuse to open their books. We have offered to extend the deal many times. They hold all the cards to getting a deal done and so far they continue to ask for capitulation on money with no proof [of need], and for players to sacrifice health and safety.”
So while we continue to look for reasons to be optimistic, the tea leaves are pointing to a lengthy process that consumes most if not all of the offseason, and beyond. If the NFL and the NFLPA fail to do a deal by March 3 and if the NFLPA doesn’t exercise its ability to decertify and block a lockout and if the NFL doesn’t declare an impasse and impose unilateral work rules on the players, the union won’t cave simply because the offseason workouts have come and gone, or because training camp has been scuttled. They’ll cry “uncle” only after their sugar daddies stop paying them, and that won’t happen until Week One of the 2011 regular season has come and gone.
With no offseason or training camp, it means that once the players decide that they’ve lost enough paychecks, they’ll lose two or three more during a truncated training camp that will be critical to the preparations for a meaningful football season.
That’s the real problem. The owners want to dramatically change the player compensation system. The players won’t feel the heat until they start losing compensation. By the time the players start losing compensation, it may be too late to throw together something that looks like organized offensive and defensive football.
In other words, when midnight finally arrives, it may be too late.
That’s why someone needs to stand up and show true leadership on the owners’ side of the table — and why the NFLPA’s Executive Committee needs to behave not like De Smith’s personal squad of cheerleaders but as a group that will engage in the application of foresight and logic and reason in the hopes of ensuring that the two sides wake up before irreparable harm is done to the long-term interests of the league.
Though artificial deadlines won’t matter, committing to meaningful and ongoing negotiations can’t hurt. Both sides need to agree to wall off at least a month for meetings aimed at getting the deal done. Via the process of conducting continuous good-faith bargaining sessions, a consensus can emerge, without De Smith having to be gratuitously tough in order to secure credibility with the rank and file and without the NFL having to force the players to miss a game check or two before they’ll make the kind of concessions necessary to reach a consensus.
And both sides need to realize that they are the stewards of a game that has survived for decades before them, and that will thrive for decades if not centuries after they are gone. They need to know that history will judge them harshly if their failure to put the interests of the game above their own interests undermines the momentum that the sport has accumulated.
I’ve got a weird feeling that not nearly enough of them care about that. At least not yet.