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Breached trust but still hope

Goodell's divide and conquer strategy Andrew Brandt

Print This March 21, 2011, 06:01 AM EST

The dueling letters this weekend between the NFL and the NFLPA once again illustrate the hallmarks of the two-year labor and legal battle: (1) a lack of trust from each side towards the other, and (2) an ongoing fight for the hearts and minds of fans and media through public relations battles on various fronts.

Trust lacking

The NFL does not trust that their last offer made to the NFLPA prior to decertification was communicated to all players accurately. They sense there may be players wondering why the NFLPA “pushed away from the table” at a critical time in the negotiations.

The NFLPA responded by setting the record straight on what was and was not offered. The players’ letter  gave a glimpse into the semantics of the two sides' proposals, noting that the NFL’s offer -- without a "true-up" on the numbers -- would not include players in the expected uptick in future revenue growth beyond fixed increases. 

Goodell’s letter served deepened the mistrust from the players’ side towards him and the rest of the NFL.

Mike VrabelICONWe will likely see more of Vrabel.

NFLPA Executive Committee member Mike Vrabel has suggested a meeting with the decision-makers – the owners – without the lawyers present. Unfortunately, we are in litigation now and lawyers must be involved. Vrabel, however, is someone the NFLPA should put out front more often as he appears reasoned and measured in his comments.

Fans are tiring of the public bickering. The only flashpoint date now is the April 6th court date, as the legal process may push this barge along more purposefully than the failed negotiation process. 

Divide and Conquer

Goodell, as a smart and skilled negotiator, had to expect a negative reaction to his letter. However, he knows he doesn’t need all players to question the NFLPA strategy. He just needs to plant seeds of doubt here and there and have those seeds grow in the coming weeks.  NFLPA solidarity is strong right now, but the key for the NFLPA is to have the solidarity of March last through the summer and fall.

Goodell’s letter serves as a sentry looking for any kinks in the armor of the players. It is the age-old strategy of divide and conquer that has long been part of the NFL’s plan in this negotiation.

As to some elements of the negotiation/deal points that are coming into focus:

Health and safety

The owners have long felt that their easiest “gives” in this negotiation were measures designed to improve the health and safety of its players. These also serve the league’s own initiatives in taking issues such as brain trauma seriously.

In the negotiation process, these measures have always been the card that the NFL was willing to play: if the players would “buy in” to their risk in operating the business of running professional football teams, the NFL would lessen the health risk for players. As such, the NFL has agreed to:

  • Reduced offseason contact: workout programs reduced from 14 weeks to 9 weeks; Organized Team Activities (OTAs) reduced from 14 to 10 days and no “live” drills.
  • Padded practices and “live” contact during training camp and the season similarly reduced.
  • Players can retain their NFL medical plan, albeit at their expense, for life, eliminating risk of not being covered.
  • Dramatically increased pensions for players that retired before 1993 -- the most disadvantaged group of former players.

Rookie pay

The incoming rookies have been in the news lately, largely due to the NFLPA’s “suggestion” to these players to avoid the handshake with Commissioner Goodell, the man leading the charge to lock these players out. Regarding this isse, there are natural compromises here that should and will be made. The Draft weekend for top picks is so much more than the thirty seconds where they shake the Commissioner’s hand; it is a celebration weekend with friends and family; it is the start of a promising career. No matter what happens, that should be maintained.

The NFL wants bonus money from top draft picks used to benefit veteran NFL players. They argue that a large amount of the $320 million rollback that the NFL sought to achieve in their last-ditch offer to the players would have come not from veteran compensation, but from the “entering player pool” (rookies). And the primary savings would come from top picks.

The NFLPA had already agreed to a reduced compensation system for rookies compared to what it has been. The details of getting there is still subject to further negotiation.

The NFL has relented on its demand for a non-negotiable scale for rookies, causing one group ancillary to this negotiation to rejoice: player agents. Negotiation of rookie contracts, and the fees associated with that, will survive. Agents can now exhale.

Independent arbitrator

Another key issue for players has been the appeals process for Commissioner discipline: a process that currently heads right back to the person who handed out the discipline in the first place: the Commissioner. For drug and steroid appeals, the NFL has agreed to an independent arbitrator process to replace the former model.  The NFL would actually prefer that a group experienced in these appeals handle the process; they would gladly turn it over to a group such as the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA).

A bigger question is whether the NFL will agree to an independent appeals process for discipline stemming from violations of the Personal Conduct Policy. This area is already bubbling up as an issue with players starting to get in trouble in this locked-out offseason.  My sense is that this is an area where Goodell will not compromise; he wants control over the behavior of the players that represent the league.

The above were issues addressed as issues the (former) union turned down last week. Of course, I have left out the big issue: the revenue split and Salary Cap number for the future. That is worthy of a column itself, which is next up.

Follow me on Twitter at adbrandt.

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