Summer Lockout Could Be Only Thing to Save 2011 NFL Season
A year from now, NFL players may well be locked out by the owners.
It may not be such a bad thing. For the timing of a spring/summer lockout would both demonstrate to NFL players that the owners are serious about changing the league's financial setup and also allow the 2011 season to be played in its entirety.
That's the scenario that's been pushed privately for a while by senior league officials, who are acceding to what seems to be a consensus by many owners that barring a settlement in which the NFL Players Association gives in to their demands, there has to be a show of strength by the league.
"Don't worry, we'll get it done,'' says one executive involved with the talks. "We will, but when?'' asks another, envisioning an offseason without the Organized Team Activities (OTAs) that the players don't necessarily like much anyway. It also could mean no minicamps and a delay to the start of camp, but without the certainty of missing regular-season games.
DeMaurice Smith, the union's executive director, met last week with commissioner Roger Goodell during the symposium for rookies in Carlsbad, Calif. Smith then talked about what sounded like the first positive news since the league opted out of the existing contract in April 2008 -- that the sides are leaning toward a deal that will last six years.
That's minor "shape-of-the-table'' news, although it took years just to decide the shape of the tables during negotiations that presumably ended the Vietnam War but didn't. It's a long way from agreeing on the length of a deal to agreeing on one that allows the NFL to play the 2011 season and beyond while satisfying those owners worried about their profit margin and players worried about everything from money to safety to retirement.
Thus the possibility of an offseason lockout, which would satisfy those groups while allowing both sides to continue negotiating. The difficulty is that there's no guarantee it wouldn't go beyond an offseason lockout -- Smith has emphasized that the television contracts contain a clause in which the league gets $4 billion from the networks even if the season isn't played.
Still, it's hard to keep reality in perspective, especially in the current media spotlight that turns everything -- Smith's "six years'' for example -- into 15 minutes of headlines. And it's been going on for more than two years now, ever since the opt out by the owners.
All this is complicated by the unexpected death of Gene Upshaw, the longtime union executive director, in August of 2008. After a long and sometimes combative search, the union finally elected Smith, a Washington lawyer, the following March.
But Smith, savvy in the ways of Washington, had no feel for the politics of the union or the NFL.
Early in his tenure, he annoyed NFL officials (mildly) by issuing statements on current events -- political and social -- as well as the affairs of the union and the league. He since has learned the lay of the land -- there are fewer public statements on issues beyond the scope of his job.
Nor did the new union front office know the history that Upshaw knew so well -- that the strikes of 1982 and 1987 were provoked by a Management Council made of up of the hardest-line anti-union owners there were. "The owners are the stewards of the game. The players are the transient workers,'' Dallas president Tex Schramm said during the 1987 strike.
Now both Smith and his staff are beginning to understand that not all owners feel the same on labor issues; that there are more moderate owners involved in negotiations and that there are some owners who want no part of a work stoppage that involves the cancellation of games.
For example, last fall and winter, union negotiators seemed frustrated by John Mara, the co-owner of the Giants and one of the owners on the management negotiating team. Mara eventually went after the union publicly, telling The New York Times' Judy Battista that he was frustrated with the pace of the talks. That he wasn't disciplined by the league, which has a gag order on about labor issues, indicates that Goodell and others had sanctioned his statements.
Some union officials took that to believe Mara was a hard-liner when the polar opposite is true. He is one of the most moderate owners on labor issues, as his father was before him, and an ally of Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney, who was instrumental in ending the previous strikes. The union has now come around to see that Mara is one of the owners who does not want to lose a season or part of it to a lockout.
Obviously the dispute is financial, although first offers -- the 18 percent rollback that players are complaining about -- are always extreme. But there are other issues as well -- the more important "18'' may be the 18-game schedule Goodell wants.
One senior league official suggested this week that there could be a tradeoff on that -- a shorter spring season in what is now an 11-month work year for players and coaches. "What would the players say if we had, say, two months of OTAs instead of three?'' he asked. Like many other items, that's a bargaining chip.
"There will be an agreement at some point," Goodell keeps saying. "Everyone would like it sooner rather than later, whether it's the players, the owners or the fans. (but) sometimes, these things don't happen until you get a little closer to the end (of the CBA). That's just the reality."
The reality may also be this:
If, say, the owners lock out the players after the draft in April and there are no OTAs and/or minicamps, there will be pressure to settle before camp opens and more pressure if that extends into July, when training camp is approaching. And if it gets into training camp, it means that the beginning of the season is in jeopardy -- a short training camp and the start of a season, whether it's 16 or 18 games, is dangerous to players' health.
Right now, the clearest scenario is getting a settlement in time for training camp, 2011.
But it's not a sure thing.