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Ten things to know, right now, about the labor situation

NFL Labor Football

NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith departs football labor negotiations with the NFL involving a federal mediator, Thursday, March 3, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)


As you spend Friday wondering exactly what will be happening with the NFL and the players’ union as they embark on the extension aimed at getting another extension, it’s a perfect time to get up to speed on the issues, so that you can dazzle your friends and/or cure your insomnia.

Yeah, we know this stuff can be boring. But football fans need to be educated on these issues.

Besides, what else are you going to do, watch preseason baseball?

1. The two sides need to trust their leaders.

The fact that two parties which previously couldn’t agree on anything finally agreed on something represents a major development, even if the initial agreement has the shelf-life of a raisin bagel. And that major development necessarily flows from one thing: the ability of Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith to demonstrate true leadership and cooperation.

The question now becomes whether the folks who hired these men to lead will allow them to lead the parties through far murkier waters, as the two sides attempt to determine whether enough progress can be made on the core issues to deliver a deal. It’s widely believed, as Peter King pointed out last month in his profile of the Commissioner, that Goodell carries in his pocket enough votes to get a deal done. The question is whether Smith enjoys similar weight among the men who hired him, and whether Smith and Goodell can commence to process of finding win-win solutions to the challenges that two sides face.

Mike Silver’s excellent report on the details of Thursday’s talks suggests that Smith may be having issues getting the union’s Executive Committee to bend. If so, that’s unfortunate. The players hired Smith for this very moment. They need to trust him. If it turns out that Smith agreed did a bad deal, then they should replace him.

2. Don’t count on another short-term extension.

Thursday’s 24-hour extension came from the fact that the two sides were trying to work out a longer extension but ran out of time, since any extension requires the signature of Judge David Doty.

The parties won’t opt to continue with piecemeal, day-by-day extensions. At some point on Friday, the two sides will either separate and launch their litigation strategies, or they’ll agree to a longer extension that will lay the foundation for a new deal.

Let’s all hope it’s the latter.

3. Decertification could be a hard road for the union.

It’s widely believed that the union would attempt to pre-empt a lockout by decertifying (technically known as “disclaiming interest”). As we explained on Thursday, it may not be the silver bullet that the union claims it to be, and the union may be well aware of that fact.

The NFL plans to claim that an attempt to shut the union down would be a sham, aimed at building leverage and not at genuinely going out of business. The best evidence comes from the fact that the union employed the same approach after the 1987 strike, paving the way for the antitrust lawsuit that resulted in the settlement agreement that became the CBA, with the union pulling a Lazarus once the players got the free-agency rights they had coveted for so long.

So while the threat of decertification may generate some (but perhaps not much) leverage, the union likely realizes that, as silver bullets go, this one may be made of tin foil.

4. “Lockout insurance” case gives NFLPA leverage, but NFLPA needs to be reasonable.

Tuesday’s ruling from Judge David Doty gave the players something they previously didn’t possess -- leverage. However, for the same reasons it’s important for the league to acknowledge that the inability to tap into $4.3 billion in TV money changes the dynamics at the bargaining table, the union should resist the temptation to make too much of its victory.

For starters, the NFL surely expected Doty to rule the way he did. They’ve believed for years that Doty is biased in favor of the players, and if they’re smart enough to own and operate NFL franchises, they’re smart enough to realize what was coming.

The appeals process presents a significant unknown for both sides. In the federal system, the three judges assigned to hear an appeal come from a broad and diverse pool of folks who wear black for reasons other than being fans of Johnny Cash. No one knows who’ll hear the appeal until the day on which oral arguments are made to the court.

When the “lockout insurance” case lands in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which encompasses Minnesota, Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota, the two most conservative judges in the panel could be assigned to the case, which would dramatically increase the league’s chances of scoring a victory and restoring the $4.3 billion in money that will help pay the bills in a lockout. In turn, two liberal judges could be assigned to the case, which would favor the players.

Bottom line? Though Judge Doty’s decision gives the players a much-needed win, plenty of lower-court rulings get overturned. And it’s possible that this one ultimately will swing back to the owners.

That’s why it’s critical for the players to resist putting too much stock in the victory before Judge Doty. If they do, it will become much harder to do a deal.

5. Collusion case still looms.

If a new deal isn’t done, Judge Doty will have another chance to determine whether the NFL violated the CBA, via the collusion case arising from the alleged failure of teams to sign restricted free agents to offer sheets in 2010.

Like the “lockout insurance” case, the league probably assumes it will lose before Doty, and then the question becomes whether the decision will stand on appeal.

Though it’s too early to apply any specific weight to the claim, it’s presence gives the league yet another for getting a deal done.

6. Dispute could get political.

The biggest problem for both sides arises from the fact that the dispute finally has landed on the radar screen of two key politicians -- the President and the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce, and Transportation. Though the players have been trying for months to exert political pressure on the owners, the reality is that anything the government does to the league will trickle down to the players, too.

If, for example, the league office loses its tax-exempt status, the increased tax expenses will cut into the bottom line. Ditto for any attack on the antitrust exemption that applies to the league’s broadcasting deals, which allows the league to sell TV rights as a 32-team package. If selling the on-air rights team-by-team hurts the total revenue take, the union’s take will drop.

Still, at a time when the union had no other leverage, it was the only way to acquire some. Now that the union has some leverage, political involvement ultimately could blow up in everyone’s face.

Except the fans.

With the two sides making progress, a well-timed nudge from Congress or the Chief Executive could push the parties together. The nudge may have come Thursday, with the statement from Senator Jay Rockefeller (D.-W. Va.) and the comments from President Barack Obama. It definitely will come if Senator Rockefeller convenes a hearing of the committee he chairs.

And if anyone thinks this won’t get the league’s attention, remember this -- after dragging their feet for years regarding the issue of head injuries, a single hearing in October 2009 prompted the NFL to make more changes within a matter of weeks than the game had ever made in its entire history.

7. Owners surely are hearing it from coaches.

The league has done a nice job of keeping the owners in line, even though real divisions remain regarding the issue of revenue sharing.

The league has done an even better job of keeping its coaches and executives from pulling a Charlie Sheen.

Coaches have to be getting extremely antsy as they face the prospect of no contact with their players, no ability to check on them, no opportunity to work with them, possibly until Labor Day or later. With the prospect of no free agency, no player trades, no ability to sign undrafted rookies, no lifting/cardio, no minicamps, no OTAs, no training camp, and no preseason, coaches may have to slap together a team on the fly.

Though it definitely hurts teams with new coaches and new coordinators, every coach will be feeling the frustration. They’re control freaks; if they weren’t, they never would have made it to this level of the sport.
And while the coaches are controlling their tongues when talking to the media, it’s safe to assume that they’re placing a lot of pressure on their owners to get a deal done, explaining to them in graphic (and possibly profane) detail the realities of playing a football season with only two or three weeks to prepare for it.

8. Cutting the pie remains the issue, growing the pie remains the challenge.

There are plenty of issues in the CBA stew, but the big one remains finding a way to divide $9 billion in revenues. The league wants the players to take a smaller slice, under the promise that the total dollars will be replaced by growing the pie.

The easiest way to grow the pie? Add two regular-season games, and the estimated $500 million that comes along with it.

The league underestimated the blowback to a possible 18-game season, both from the players, the media, and the fans. So why not explore other ways to grow the pie?

As Texans right tackle Eric Winston explained earlier this week on PFT Live, the NFL could easily grow the pie by selling the Thursday night package to the highest bidder, in lieu of using it to prop up a league-owned network with far less distribution than it deserves. The other easy answer would be to eliminate the playoff byes, adding four games to the wild-card round that could be sold to the networks.

Regardless of the devices ultimately chosen, there are plenty of ways to grow the pie that don’t entail exposing players to two more regular-season games.

9. The named plaintiffs in the class action could get an added bonus.

On Thursday, reports emerged that big-name players like Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning will apply their names to any class action filed against the league after decertification. Apart from making the whole imbroglio seem a lot sexier, there could be a real benefit for any player who applies his name to the front page of the civil complaint.

The settlement of the last antitrust claim, which was filed by the late Reggie White, Michael Buck, Hardy Nickerson, Vann McElroy, and the recently deceased Dave Duerson, included a clause that precluded the use of the franchise tag to restrict their movement.

Since Brady, Brees, and Manning are getting long in the tooth (by football standards) and given that a settlement could be several years away, it could be a smart move for youngsters like Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford, and/or Mark Sanchez to volunteer to put their names at the top of the pleadings.

10. Declaration of impasse possible, not likely.

For months, plenty of league insiders believed that the league was bluffing about a lockout, and that upon expiration of the labor deal the owners would instead declare the existence of an impasse and impose the terms of the last, best offer.

Even though fewer and fewer league insiders think it will happen, it’s still a possibility.

If the owners truly have become skittish about locking the doors, it’s a possibility that could regain some steam -- and that could win plenty of political and P.R. points.