NFL players, owners wait to see who will blink first

Commissioner Roger Goodell tells press owners ratified deal.
Commissioner Roger Goodell tells press owners ratified deal. (Associated Press)
Posted: July 22, 2011

FIVE YEARS AGO, in perhaps the finest negotiating moment of his career, the late Gene Upshaw managed to pressure 32 supposedly intelligent billionaires into agreeing to a bad deal.

With the NFL owners facing a midnight deadline that would have sent the league spiraling into an uncapped year at a time when the owners still were naïve enough to believe an uncapped year would mark the end of civilization as we know it, the longtime NFL Players Association chief faxed the owners a take-it-or-leave-it offer, then hopped on a plane for Hawaii.

The owners, who also were under pressure to get a deal done as a going-away present for retiring commissioner Paul Tagliabue, approved the deal by a 30-2 vote even though most of them didn't understand many of the terms of the extension. By the time they did, it was too late.

Yesterday, the owners attempted to put the same kind of pressure on the players.

Meeting outside Atlanta, the owners voted to approve a new, 10-year labor agreement and indicated that the only thing standing in the way of the end of the 5-month lockout was a similar ratification vote by the players.

"It's time to get back to football," commissioner Roger Goodell said after announcing the owners' ratification vote.

That's a matter of opinion.

The players say it will be time to get back to football when they say it's time to get back to football. And it won't be time to get back to football until they ratify a new deal and vote to recertify as a union, neither of which they did yesterday.

While Goodell was announcing that the league likely would reopen for business next week, Upshaw's successor, DeMaurice Smith, was warning not so fast.

He sent an email to the league's players informing them that what the owners voted on yesterday was nothing more than a proposal and that several unresolved issues still need to be bargained.

Smith held a 2-hour conference call with player representatives from the league's 32 teams last night. But no ratification vote was taken and no decision was made on recertifying the NFLPA as a union.

Many of the owners seemed genuinely stunned last night that the players didn't follow their lead and approve a deal.

"That's baffling to me," Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson told reporters. "We believe we have a handshake agreement with the players."

Added New York Giants owner John Mara, a member of the league's management executive committee that has been negotiating with the players: "We believe we have an agreement. Now it's up to the players."

Then this from the Eagles' Jeff Lurie: "I was always confident sometime in the summer, hopefully in time for training camp that something would get resolved. I was always optimistic. I always felt we had a great relationship with our players. We knew some of their concerns for work rules and things like that.

"I just felt that calmer minds over time would prevail. It just made sense because the sport is so popular. How can you back off from something so popular and not allow it to start on time and continue in such a great way."


If I'm DeMaurice Smith, I'd be more than a little pissed off at Goodell and the owners right now. Their suggestions that "we thought we had a deal" puts Smith, who succeeded Upshaw in 2008 and is negotiating his first labor deal, in a bad light and makes him look like a flipping idiot. They are suggesting that they signed off on the terms of a deal with him and now he can't get the players to agree to it.

"The owners approved terms of an agreement that had been negotiated with the players' negotiating team," league spokesman Greg Aiello said last night in an interview on the NFL Network. "But it still has to be approved by the players."

While Aiello acknowledged that there are a few "issues that still need to be resolved," he said they cannot be dealt with until the NFLPA recertifies.

"There are still some details to be worked out, finalized," Aiello said. "The owners approved the basic parameters of the deal. Somebody's got to go first."

In a second email to the players last night, the NFLPA's counsel, Richard Berthelsen, accused the owners of "depriving the players of the time needed to consider [re-]forming a union and making needed changes to the old agreement." He also said the league's proposed procedures, which stipulate the players must re-form as a union by July 26, violates federal laws.

A settlement? Hardly. The fun seems to be just beginning. *

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