Ralph Wilson Faces Labor Battles Head-On
Ralph Wilson was born in 1918. The same year as sly singer/actress Pearl Bailey. The same year as Egyptian icon Anwar Sadat and football coaching wizard George Allen and radio luminary Paul Harvey.
At age 92, Wilson has outlived them all -- and reaches 93 on Oct. 17. He is the only owner the Buffalo Bills have known for 51 seasons and his team plays in a stadium that bears his name. He is a 2009 Hall of Fame inductee.
He is watching from his home and offices in Detroit as the labor skirmish between NFL owners and players spirals.
Having helped driven the 1970 merger between the AFL and the NFL, having played a key role in several past labor agreements (especially the 1977 pact), Wilson has an exclusive NFL feel for where things have been, where they are and where they are headed.
"I think this thing can get settled in some way,'' Wilson said. "I can't predict what is going to happen. Nobody can predict the future. I don't even know if I'll be talking and alive tomorrow. No one does.
"I think it's going to take a lot of work. A lot of work has already been done. But I agree with (commissioner) Roger Goodell's assessment that it will take work and sacrifices from all sides. It's so much more complicated. I used to set up my team in the early days where you set aside so much money that you expected to lose and then it was on with the season. Everyone should be heard. Everyone should participate. It's so complicated that one guy can't do it all.''
AGAINST 2006 DEAL
What the owners want now after opting out of a deal implemented in 2006 is what Wilson wanted in 2006. He and Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown were alone in voting against that deal.
"They passed out a sheet that contained financial information,'' Wilson recalled of the owners meeting in March 2006 when that CBA was sanctioned. "It was not what I thought we were supposed to get. I thought there would be more discussion. I voted against it because I didn't understand the financial figures put out. And what I did understand, I didn't like.''
The owners vowed after that entire negotiating experience that they would not allow dissension and disagreement within their ranks to surface so freely in any future negotiating process. They believed the players got the better of them in solidarity the last time. They are bent on that not happening to them this time.
"Once the owners hired Bob Batterman as their attorney and voice, it tells you where they were going,'' an NFL labor source said. "He is a master at keeping ownership on point. He wants 32 guys thinking a certain way -- the same way.''
Little wonder that owners surfaced swinging for Jerry Richardson, the Carolina Panthers' owner, after reports surfaced that he had "insulted'' and "demeaned'' players' intelligence in recent negotiating sessions. Even if several owners did not agree with Richardson's approach with the players ... or that he unashamedly sliced his team a season in advance of this possible lockout .... or that in their past dealings with him know firsthand how crass and cold he can be, they stood behind him. United.
Wilson believes solidarity is key, but fairness is paramount.
"We want, the NFL wants for everybody to make money, although I did not get into this league all those years ago just for that,'' Wilson said. "I want a fair deal to the clubs, the players, the fans, the media, everyone. A fair agreement.
"I never thought there would be a merger. Fifty years ago, I never thought the game would grow as it has. And the next 50 years can be even bigger. Maybe an international game. But first, you have to take care of today.''
ROOM TO IMPROVE
That is Wilson's goal with the Bills.
His general manager, Buddy Nix, and coach, Chan Gailey, have recently been joined by former University of Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt, whose past NFL coaching experience and current knowledge of college players should prove valuable. Wannstedt is an assistant head coach who will work with linebackers.
The Bills have plenty of room to rise from a 4-12 season.
"I've made a lot of mistakes with my team in the last 10 years,'' Wilson said. "I think I'm rectifying that. We'll see. We almost won some games last year against teams that were certainly more talented than us. Buddy, the scouts, the coaches, they are working. I know it's not going to be an instant turnaround. I think it will take two or three years to have a playoff team -- and that's if we get a quarterback.''
And here is what Wilson had to say about speculation that the Bills will select Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the draft's No. 3 pick:
"Well, he's very athletic. But it's the intangibles. We've had a number of quarterbacks that could throw the ball 100 yards and right into your stomach. But then they got into games and threw it 100 yards into the other team's stomach. There's time. We'll learn more about him. Just like with this labor agreement, you just can't predict.''
It is Wilson's lifelong blueprint that should color these labor discussions: You live, you learn, you do.