NFL Players, Owners Prepare for Battle
The sides have negotiated often over the last year about what is required to create a new labor agreement, one that will ensure football beyond the 2010 season. These annual meetings give both the occasion to learn privately where they stand and crystallize strategies.
Here is what the players want the owners to conclude by the time their sessions end on Wednesday: If owners agreed to open their financial books, a new long-term labor agreement could likely be reached before the September season kickoff.
The chance owners will agree to that in Orlando? Zero.
Without it, the way players view chances of a looming 2011 lockout? Infinitely.
"The owners tell us the business model of the NFL is broken," said an NFL player who represented his team at the Hawaii meetings. "If your financial situation is that dire, what's the holdup in showing us? Owners say trust us. That's like buying a car without looking under the hood. These are the same guys who fight us tooth and nail for injury grievances, and we're just going to trust that they're hurting like they say? Show us the finances and we can get a deal done in days. That's the biggest hang-up. It sounds so simple. It has been hard to do."
Thus, the players are rallying around their leader, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, and his message in Hawaii of, "one voice, one locker room, one team.'' One resounding no against these ideas players were told in Hawaii that owners have recently proposed:
* The need for an 18 percent rollback in expenses.
* A new system where players would pay their own travel expenses throughout the NFL season.
* A new one where players would pay for practice facility operations.
"Basically, they want us to pay rent for our lockers,'' said another player representative who attended the Hawaii meetings. "And more credits to write off more of their debt.''
It is a bad deal created in different economic times, the owners say, of this current system that gives the players 60 percent of revenues. It is a fair deal that gives the larger share to players who take huge injury risks and gives the owners favorable limitations in player free agency, players say.
Would the players accept fewer dollars for more liberal free agency?
"That has been discussed,'' a player rep said. "Stay tuned.''
Without open books to have an open financial negotiation, this could be a key part of the ticket that brings an eventual solution. Since the owners -- not the players -- already opted out and will not extend the current deal past this season, the onus is on them to give up something worthy to get what they want.
In the Hawaii meetings, the players dealt with the members of their group who were free agents this year in this murky climate, one that affected signings. They were asked to see the bigger picture and not let frustrations linger.
Some of them were reminded of that idea first-hand in Hawaii in meetings with retired players.
"I met some guys who played in the '40s and '50s and '60s there, and though I don't remember all of their names, I remember all of their walks,'' a player representative said. "They weren't walking upright. When they extend their hands to meet you, they had to move their whole body to get their hands in place. I saw crooked fingers. I saw guys with kneecaps bowing out to the sides. It reminded us that we as players have a 100 percent injury rate; it's not a matter of if you get hurt playing this game, it's a matter of when.
"You get a true sense of pride after those kinds of introductions. You realize the strides they fought for and that we can't throw it all away because ownership says it is hurting. We are standing on the shoulders of those retired players. Now we must stand to be the shoulders for future players.''
Here is what one player at the meetings had to say about the Domonique Foxworth/Kevin Mawae competition for NFLPA president, won by Mawae: "For people to say there is a rift there is absurd. Domonique is a very young player who is already quite involved in the union. This was an opportunity for him to step in and offer his services at a critical time and also plant his name for the future. Both guys opened saying regardless of how it turned out that both will always be union men and selfless people. We've got 1,900 players. And just like the 32 owners in their group, everybody is not going to be happy with everything. But we have people across the board with their hearts in the right place.''
Who is more united and resolute, the players or the owners?
Ownership will help reveal that in Orlando.
The players say they are returning to their teams to spread the Hawaii meetings news with their teammates and to "educate, educate, educate.'' And they want them to pay attention to what happens -- and what does not -- in Orlando.
"I know we felt it in Hawaii, and I know the owners will feel it in Orlando,'' a player rep said. "As we continue to push through toward this season, both sides are feeling the heat. We can't afford to be in this situation come the next Super Bowl in Dallas. We can't afford it, not just the money issues but the hit to our game, as players, and they can't afford it as owners."'