NFL Labor pains, Part Five

In my ongoing series about the NFL labor dispute, here is part one.
Here is part two.
Here is part three.
Here is part four.

There are eventful and talkative days in the game behind the game, the NFL labor battle. Unfortunately, the talking is not with each other. They are apart, both literally and figuratively. Let’s look at who met where and why:

The owners

The owners gathered for an important meeting in Atlanta to update the full membership and discuss strategy. They have committed to another meeting on February 15th in Philadelphia. These meetings will shape their collective position with the NFLPA.

Robert KraftICONKraft has been optimistic about a new CBA.

I am often asked whether the owners are united in their quest to forge a new economic system with the players. There have been conflicting signs at times, with owners such as Robert Kraft of the Patriots and John Mara of the Giants sounding optimistic about a new agreement while owners such as the two Jerrys -- Richardson of the Panthers and Jones of the Cowboys -- sounding pessimistic.

My sense is that the owners are united and everything about their message is strategic, surgical and choreographed.

Commissioner Goodell’s letter to 5 million fans two weeks ago was the first salvo of the offseason. It was a tactical memo that the owners are trying to get a deal done with the union that will cure some of the ills of the game such as exorbitant rookie salaries. There will be more messages to come from both the Commissioner and designated owners, all well thought out and targeted.

The players

The NFLPA has ramped up its communications with now-frequent media conference calls and a social media campaign to block a lockout. They are harping on their declared public relations themes, such as:

  • The owners opted out of the CBA, not the players
  • The owners would be implementing a work stoppage, not the players
  • The owners are claiming the system doesn’t work, not the players
  • In this age of financial transparency, the owners refuse to show us their books
  • Let us play!

The Collusion case

After initially delaying their threatened collusion claim against the NFL, the NFLPA has now filed this claim. The claim was deferred by the NFLPA in the spirit of good faith bargaining and seen as an encouraging sign of progress in the negotiations. Now that hope has been dashed with yet another case in front of Special Master Stephen Burbank, as he is just wrapping up hearings on the television contract case.

Among the charges in the collusion claim are that there was concerted effort by NFL teams to:

(1) Refrain from signing Restricted Free Agents (RFA’s), an especially large number of players this year due to the six-year requirement for unrestricted free agency. This was clearly where the talent was in free agency in 2010; and
(2) Negotiate language into player contracts that required roster and option bonus payments for the 2011 League Year to not be paid until the first game is played, rather than the usual language of payment in March.

As to the potential success of these claims, I wrote about this in June. The RFA market does not usually produce much movement in any year. With a deep draft and no spending floor for teams, the limited activity was not a big surprise.

As to the language, the NFL attorneys will likely point out that the language could have been negotiated by the team and the player’s agents to include any dates for payment.

Mr. Smith goes to Washington

On Tuesday and today NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, a group of players and their families will meet with Congressmen in Washington.

Why the visit? First, the NFLPA wants to try to level the playing field knowing that the NFL has significant lobbying muscle in Washington.

Smith is also playing on the celebrity element to his visit, as Congressmen are also fans who enjoy rubbing elbows with NFL players. And Smith has invited wives and children of players to play the sympathy card of families potentially losing their benefits in the event of a lockout.

Smith will give Congress the following message: an NFL lockout would result in a loss to each NFL market of $140-150 million and an overall loss of 150,000 jobs. Certainly, the NFL’s economists would argue with these numbers, but it is Smith’s turn at the trough to spin Congress.

The sell to the players

Smith, a longtime Washington lawyer, traded on his connections on Capitol Hill in winning the job as NFLPA Executive Director two years ago. His presentation detailed his background and connections to the most important offices in the country, including that of the President. These meetings yesterday are part of what Smith sold with his promises of influence.

Unfortunately, Smith’s visits to the Hill only serve to frustrate the owners. As they gathered in Atlanta, it is certain one of the subjects raised was the fact that Smith was talking more to Congressmen than to the owners. True or not, open and honest communication and trust between the two sides continues to be the problem of this negotiation.

There is still a lot that can happen between now and March and I continue to choose to not believe the doom and gloom. Although talking to each other would help.

Follow me on Twitter at adbrandt.

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