It lacks the shock of the Ray Rice video or the drama of #Deflategate, but a recent misadventure from the league office is creating plenty of problems for some of the highest-paid people who work there.
Last month’s slam-dunk arbitration ruling regarding the funneling by the NFL of general admission ticket revenues to a made-up exception from the pool that funds the salary cap has rankled multiple owners, especially since many of them knew nothing about the controversy until it was resolved adversely to the interests of the league.
As one source with knowledge of the situation told PFT, members of the NFL’s Management Council Executive Committee weren’t apprised of the situation until after arbitrator Stephen Burbank issued his ruling. While it’s possible that CEC chairman John Mara knew about the situation, the committee at large apparently wasn’t given a head’s up about the issue or about the league’s decision to fight the thing in an arbitration that went as badly for the NFL as it could have.
Apart from the slam-dunk defeat before Burbank, who made the rare decision to rule on the issue at the end of the hearing without taking the matter under advisement, the outcome creates the impression that the NFL was stealing from the NFL Players Association. Sure, the league issued a statement that made it all seem ambiguous and accidental, but the players believe their money was deliberately taken, and there isn’t much (if anything) the NFL can say to change that.
It damages if not destroys the trust between management and labor, making it harder to reach agreements because the union won’t be willing to make a future leap of faith without clear protections against similar efforts to interpret powers so aggressively as to be clearly and plainly erroneous and improper.
“How many things have they taken all the way to an arbitrator that obviously they knew they were going to lose?” NFLPA president Eric Winston said last week on PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio. “Or if they didn’t know they were going to lose they felt like, ‘Well the repercussions aren’t such that if we lose, oh, no big deal, we’ll still be back.’ Now, going forward we’re probably going to have to look at ways now to remedy this, and that’s a sad thing. That’s not good for our business, that’s not good for the NFL, but it is where we are.”
Here’s where the league is: Fewer than three weeks away from the annual meeting, at which hard questions will be asked and grievances will be aired and actions could be taken by owners who may be growing disenchanted with the NFL’s overall approach to legal disputes. While the Patriots were the only team affected in a negative way by the #Deflategate debacle, others surely realize that the league handled the situation poorly, allowing for reasonable minds to conclude that the league office picked a result and then worked backward through the evidence to justify a predetermined outcome.
In this case, reasonable minds can conclude that the league tried to pull a fast one with the union, got caught, and then doubled down with a flimsy legal argument that held no water before an arbitrator who can’t be discredited in the way that lawyers who have lost like to discredit judges and juries who have ruled against them. If enough reasonable minds belonging to NFL owners believe that the league screwed this one up badly, folks like Commissioner Roger Goodell, COO Tod Leiweke, and general counsel Jeff Pash may have some high-stakes tap dancing to do when the NFL descends on Bota Raton later this month.
Of those three, some would say Pash should be the most nervous. With Leiweke now serving as the buffer between Goodell and his layer of lieutenants, Leiweke could decide that the time has come to take action. And since the NFL typically doesn’t dismiss high-level executives, “action” would likely consist of nudging Pash back toward Covington & Burling, to one of the 32 teams, or in the direction of another large law firm that does business with the league.