How the players union can help its case

First, a word about the change in rules for overtime: Boo. Yes, I understand the inequity of teams losing without getting their hands on the ball, that kickers are now much more productive and that statistics show the team that wins the coin toss wins the game disproportionately. So what else is new?

These overtime rules have existed without vigorous argument for change for many years. What has changed is the fact the NFC Championship was decided with a coin toss, a kickoff return, a pass interference penalty and a field goal. That’s what has fueled this fire, not all the statistics that have been there for years. A rule change should be proactive, not reactive. If anyone should have been advocating this rule after what happened, it was the Vikings, who voted against it.

Familiar dissenters

Interestingly, two of the other three teams to vote against adopting the new rule were Buffalo and Cincinnati. We all remember what happened the last time they were the contrarians -- a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was passed in 2006. Soon after Buffalo and Cincinnati took their lonesome stance then, the entire league moved over to their side after the ink dried. Now the league finds itself trying to roll back that deal, bringing us back to the labor situation.

As the NFL meetings end today, the big question is, where will we be at this time next year? More specifically, will there be a lockout in 2011? Some signs point to that scenario.

Lockout preparations underway

Although lockout talk was not that prevalent in Orlando this week – the NFL’s position will always be about trying to get a fair deal done – the subject dominated the union meeting in Hawaii. NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith believes the owners’ intent is to lock out the players, repeating, like the litigator he is, the two evidentiary points he has harped on for months:

(1) The NFL’s broadcast deals require full payment through a potentially locked-out 2011 (although those payments are offset against future years in the event of a lockout).

(2) The NFL has hired attorney Bob Batterman to steer it through this process. Batterman guided the NHL through its lockout and has been referred to by the NFLPA as the “lockout lawyer,” although that moniker may change after Batterman advised Major League Soccer in its successfully completed CBA this week.

What to do

The NFL clearly wants to slow play this negotiation, seeing no urgency to get a deal done now that a capless year is upon us without any financial peril being experienced by teams. As we anticipated, the real issue of the uncapped year was not the prospect of teams engaging in Steinbrenneresque spending but in Florida Marlinesque spending. The lack of spending, rather than overspending, will be the issue of the uncapped year of 2010, along with the lack of activity for the talented group of 212 “limbo” restricted free agents.

Goodell has referred to the negotiation with the NFLPA as “in the first quarter,” a clear sign that there will be no urgency to getting a new deal until, at the earliest, before the 2011 league year next March. Now a year in and continuing to face an uphill battle against a much-better-financed opponent, what can the union do?

Smith has embarked on a public-relations campaign to try and paint the owners as the heavy in these negotiations, but that will only have limited impact. Neither the media nor the fans will empathize with either side in a fight over $8.5 billion of revenue.

Smith, however, can start with a couple of steps:

(1) Play goalie and protect what his predecessor, Gene Upshaw, and Roger Goodell’s predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, forged in 2006, especially the fact that whatever percentage of revenues allocated to players comes from a calculation of TFR (total football revenues). The change in calculation of player costs from DGR (designated gross revenues) to TFR was a game changer.

(2) Not debate in public. We’ve heard a lot about proposals from the league that call for 18-percent cuts, for different percentages of revenue, for this much and that much. The talk of specific numbers should be for the bargaining table. This is a contract negotiation, just like between a player and club. Nothing is served by conducting it in public, whether from Smith or players like Kevin Mawae.

(3) Speaking of Upshaw and Tagliabue, Smith must try to develop a personal trust and relationship with Goodell as well as other influential owners such as Jerry Richardson of Carolina, Bob Kraft of New England and, in Smith’s hometown, Dan Snyder of Washington, even if it seems forced. Although not on the agenda of this week’s meetings, Smith should have been there in a social role at the least. Go out to dinner, bring the wives, develop a rapport to create the foundation for a partnership for both sides.

These are initial steps Smith can take. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll address two much bigger action steps that are crucial to this negotiation. Stay tuned.

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