Hard-liners derail NFL's CBA negotiations

Splitting $9 billion in revenues is major sticking point

February 16, 2011|By Ken Murray, The Baltimore Sun

Two weeks before lock down and lockout, negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement for the NFL are non-existent.

The owners and players are so entrenched in their respective positions that no negotiations are even planned.

Who knew that dividing $9 billion in revenues from the most popular and prosperous professional sport in history would be this hard or this acrimonious?

Certainly not Domonique Foxworth, the veteran Ravens cornerback who, as a member of the NFL Players Association's executive committee, has been sitting in on his first CBA talks.

What would it take, Foxworth was asked this week, to get the two sides back to the negotiating table?

"We haven't left the table," he said. "We're sitting at the table by ourselves. … Well, we're not literally still sitting at the table, but metaphorically, we're still waiting. We've presented a proposal and now we're just kind of waiting."

The owners were so unimpressed with the union proposal last Wednesday that they canceled a negotiating session the next day. And that was less than a week after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, in his Super Bowl news conference, stressed the importance of maintaining dialog in order to reach an agreement by the March 4 deadline, when the old agreement expires and the lockout begins.

This week the owners went one step further, charging the union with unfair labor practice in a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. Simply put, the complaint is a pre-emptive strike that questions the legal validity of the union's thinly veiled threat of decertification.

The players, meanwhile, have seethed about the league's seemingly contradictory goals of improved player safety and an 18-game regular season. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who played with John Unitas and the Baltimore Colts, was under fire this week for alleged condescending comments made to quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Drew Brees during negotiations.

One man who is not surprised at the rising level of rhetoric is Gary Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis and a long-time observer of the league's periodic labor staredowns.

Even before the Super Bowl, Roberts said he expected both sides to "dig in their heels … and call each other nasty names."

More problematic, Roberts said, is that both Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFLPA, have "radical constituencies they have to appease to some extent."

"Both sides want the other side to blink first," Roberts said. "Usually, that kind of compromise doesn't occur until people's feet are held to the fire."

Foxworth, who missed last season with knee surgery, said he was getting mixed signals watching negotiations unfold during the season.

"I've been going to these meetings for a very long time, most of this season, now into the offseason," he said. "And there's a new issue every time. They raise something, we find a solution. Then they say, 'That wasn't the problem, this is the problem.' "

It's troubling enough to Foxworth that he raised this concern:

"[Smith] called it a war, but the battle lines need to be re-drawn. It's not as clear as Republicans vs. Democrats. Some people on their side really want to have football. …

"It feels like the majority of owners want there to be football next year. But I think a small minority of owners — and unfortunately they have a great deal of power — are willing to take us to the mat on this one and put on the pressure."

Foxworth said he sees a big market vs. small market break along league lines.

"The small-market teams realize how lucrative this league is," he said. "They see the disproportionate amount of money going to larger-market teams. Their solution, rather than figure it out amongst themselves, is to take more from the players."

From Goodell on down, the NFL has steadfastly said the current economic formula is not one owners can live with.

When Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti met with the media in late January, he said the revenue split (60 percent of total revenues to the players after a $1 billion credit off the top to the owners) "is not working for the owners."

"If your business gave you a 50 percent raise and you and your wife started spending 60 percent more money, you're not going to be better off," he said. "Everybody keeps talking about the health of the league because they keep seeing the revenues go up. They don't know that expenses are rising at a higher rate than those revenues. We've got to get that right. We've got to get that in check."

Because no game revenue will be lost unless the lockout lasts until September, the two sides are engaging in a high-stakes poker game. The hard-liners appear to rule the day for now.

"I think there is middle ground to be found," Roberts said. "It's just a matter of convincing enough players, enough owners, that they've got to start making compromises."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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