With still four years to go until potential labor strife, the relationship between the NFL and the NFL Players Association seems as strained as ever.
In an interview with Bryant Gumbel that debuts Tuesday night on HBO, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith addresses among other things the changes to the Personal Conduct Policy that happened after various high-profile off-field incidents in 2014.
Asks Gumbel, “When Roger Goodell can stand up there as he did and say, ‘We’re drafting a new NFL Personal Conduct Policy. We’re gonna do so in conjunction with the union,’ and then doesn’t consult the union, comes up with a new policy, that says what?”
Responds Smith, “That says he lied.”
(NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told HBO: “We repeatedly tried to engage the union but they had no interest in developing a tough and enhanced personal conduct policy.”)
Smith’s beliefs on that point suggest that the relationship between the two men isn’t good.
“He has a job,” Smith said. “And I have a job. My relationship with Roger I would argue is irrelevant.”
But does Smith trust Goodell?
“I don’t have the luxury of trust, now do I?”
Ideally, there would be mutual trust between management and labor, in any industry. Folks can disagree on fundamental issues regarding the business but ultimately be willing and able to believe what the other side says. Without that, every single thing about managing the relationship becomes harder.
Here’s how it creates real problems within the context of negotiations. If, in theory, Goodell and Smith were to talk through issues informally and Goodell or Smith were to tell the other that a proposed deal or term is acceptable and then, for whatever reason, fails to deliver a binding agreement on that point, it becomes impossible for agreements to be reached in expedient fashion between two men who: (1) should know what’s best for their constituencies; (2) should be able to make tentative commitments on behalf of their constituencies; and (3) should be able to deliver on finalizing those terms.
As more broadly applied to labor negotiations, a lack of trust forces each side to constantly read each and every letter of each and every page of each and every written document that reflects agreement made at the table, not simply to confirm that the deal says what it says but to scan for any intentional additions or omissions that alter the deal in a non-obvious way. Those tactics aren’t uncommon in business relationships, but when those things happen, it’s hard to trust.
Making it even harder for the NFLPA to trust the NFL is the skirmish that emerged in early 2016, when the league was caught with its hand in the revenue-sharing cookie jar.
“The players have seen examples over and over and over now of them skirting the rules, of them trying to go around something that was clearly intended, clearly written in a certain way,” NFLPA president Eric Winston told PFT Live at the time. “Whether it’s in personal conduct, whether it’s financial matters. I mean those things ring very loudly to players, and I field a lot of calls about this. I field calls from former players, from current players about this, and they’re upset. I mean, one of those things that go right to the core of our business is money and you can’t take from somebody and expect not to be some hard feelings, expect to be upset. It hurts everything going forward and it’s unfortunate.”
From conduct to money, these specific examples underscores the NFLPA’s belief that “trust but verify” has been replaced with “don’t trust and verify, verify, verify.” And that attitude definitely complicates things as the next round of CBA talks approaches.