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League continues to walk fine line between building leverage and threatening lockout

NFL Super Bowl Football

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell poses for a photo with Super Bowl XLV MVP Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers during a news conference Monday, Feb. 7, 2011, in Dallas. The Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 to win the NFL football Super Bowl XLV football game. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)


On Friday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said during his annual Super Bowl press conference that, if a new agreement isn’t reached between the league and the NFLPA by March 4, free agency won’t commence that day. Goodell’s words echoed those of NFL general counsel Jeff Pash from two days earlier, and the implicit message seemed clear -- there will be no free agency as of March 4 absent a new deal, because absent a new deal there will be a lockout.

Here’s what Goodell said, according to the transcript provided by the league: "[I]f we’re unsuccessful in getting an agreement by March 4, I expect that the uncertainty will continue, which will be bad for our partners. It will be bad for the players, it will be bad for the clubs. That uncertainty will lead to a reduction, potentially, in revenue, and, when that revenue decreases, there will be less for us to share. That will just make it harder to make an agreement. So, what we have to do is remove the uncertainty. A series of things will happen in March if we’re not successful. There will not be free agency, which will impact on the players.” (Emphasis added.)

So I somehow finagled a spot in line to pose a follow-up to Goodell, blocking Brian Kilmeade of FOX News, who apparently wasn’t pleased with that particular development. Here was my question: “When you say that there will not be free agency on March 4th without a new labor deal, aren’t you essentially saying there will be a lockout if there isn’t a deal by March 4th? If not how else would free agency be delayed?”

Said Goodell, “If I misspoke, I apologize, but I said if we are not successful by March 4th, a number of things will happen. When that happens, one of them would be that there wouldn’t be free agency. There are close to 500 players that would qualify for free agency who won’t be free agents. There are enough incentives for all of us to get to the table and get this deal done right.”

He didn’t misspeak. The point is that, if there’s no deal, there won’t be free agency. As NFL chief outside counsel Bob Batterman told PFT Live last month, one of three things will happen on March 4: (1) the parties will continue to operate under the current labor deal while negotiations continue; (2) the NFL will declare impasse under federal labor law and implement the terms of the league’s final pre-impasse offer; or (3) a lockout will commence.

Batterman made it clear that the current deal won’t be extended, which in theory would allow teams to begin making trades and signing free agents as of 12:01 a.m. ET on March 4. As to the impasse option, the only way free agency wouldn’t occur is if the league’s final pre-impasse offer states that there will be no free agency moving forward. The labor dispute has nothing to do with the current free-agency system; thus, the league’s final pre-impasse offer surely will maintain the current free-agency rules.

So there’s only one way there will be no free agency. There will be no free agency if there’s a lockout.

Rich Eisen of NFL Network raised the no-free-agency-means-lockout question again during a one-on-one with Goodell immediately following the press conference. “It’s a fact,” Goodell said. “If you don’t have an agreement, there won’t be free agency movement and that is the problem. For the players, that’s why you want to get an agreement now. And if it extends out further, if it went so far as to get into the regular season, obviously that free agency period is going to have to be reduced. That’s not good for the players. That’s why we need to get this deal done sooner rather than later.”

Goodell is adroitly dancing on a fine line here. In a lockout, no football business will be transacted until the situation is resolved. The football business that won’t be transacted includes free agency. Reminding the players of that builds leverage.

But the league wants to have it both ways, publicly squeezing the players by pointing out that no agreement means no free agency without admitting that no free agency happens only with a lockout.

Though there are new signs of hope that deal will be done before the end of March (more on that later), recent statements from Goodell and Pash prove that the NFLPA has had it right for more than a year.

Absent a deal, a lockout is coming.