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NFL, players need to get back to the table ... now

 Shortly after the NFL Players Association announced last Friday that they’d decertified as a union, which led to 10 players suing the NFL an antitrust grounds, which led to the NFL locking the players out, DeMaurice Smith said something I still can’t get out of my mind. 

This was less than two hours after talks between the league and the NFL Players Association had collapsed. Smith had gathered a handful of reporters in a conference room at the NFLPA’s offices about three blocks from the federal mediator’s office where the talks broke down. I was one of those reporters, and listened closely as Smith, one of the most compelling public speakers I’ve ever been around, laid out his case for why the union was decertifying and why the lawsuits were taking place. 

He talked about how far apart the two sides were in negotiations, and how there was no trust on either side, particularly the players. And he kept hammering away on the issue he has spoken about publicly for most of the last two years: financial transparency. 

“For the last 14 days, the NFL has said, ‘trust us,’ but when it came time for verification, it was none of our business,” he said. 

But there was something else Smith said night, something that leads me to believe there was a deal to be made, if only the two sides had continued negotiating and not taken such a hard line with each other. It’s a little complicated and will take a minute to explain, but work with me:

Smith talked about how the union at one point during the negotiations was actually willing to sacrifice a significant amount of money without demanding the league “open the books,” as Smith had said repeatedly over the last to years. In defending the league’s claims that the NFLPA was bent on decertification and litigation, and not negotiation, Smith offered up this nugget: 

“If the union was lockstep aimed at decertification and if there was only going to a litigation strategy, why would we provide one of the most successful business in the history of American business with $550 million of investment and, most importantly, our players taking less money than they would be entitled to if the [salary] cap continued,” Smith said. “If the league out-paced their conservative [revenue] projections, the savings would have been in excess of $550 million over those first four years.” 

Think about this for a minute. While Smith had constantly harped on the idea of the NFL opening its books – something rarely seen in labor negotiations – he revealed that there was at least one move by the union to offer givebacks without seeing, as he said, “a shred of financial information.” That $550 million averaged out to $137.5 million per year. 

It’s a critical distinction, because it tells you that the union was, in fact, willing to negotiate at some level without having to see the audited financial statements. Just hours before the decertification/lockout scenario materialized last Friday, NFL owners in full retreat, coming off their initial $1 billion request for cost credits that would go toward investments in things like stadiums, the NFL Network expansion and other projects designed to grow future revenue. By late Friday, that figured had dropped to around $320 million – a drop of nearly 70 percent. 

And I’m convinced the owners would have lowered their demands even further had the union been willing to build on the stunning momentum it had created with its hard-line stance. Forget Smith’s public insistence on needing to see audited financials; he’d already been willing to give up $137.5 million per year. With owners seemingly desperate to do a deal, there was no better time to extend the talks, twist the owners’ arms some more, and get a new deal that would have been fair for both sides. 

I know some player representatives who were in on the negotiations complained that the NFL's offer was too little, too late. But this is how negotiations usually go. One side will never give its best offer early in the process; it's commonplace for that offer to come at the very end, which is what happened last week. 

Clearly, the owners had blinked, as their sweetened off last Friday showed. But instead of pouncing on it, the union blinked, too. Instead of beating up the league some more at the bargaining table, the NFLPA dissolved itself, and 10 players – including quarterbacks Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning – put their names on an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. Incidentally, nine of those players have made more than $400 million in salary combined during their careers, and that doesn’t account for the money they’d make if there’s a 2011 season. The 10th is Texas A & M linebacker Von Miller, who is projected to be a high first-round pick. 

So here’s what we’re left with: Both sides accusing the other of bad faith negotiations – Smith yesterday called the NFL’s final offer “the worst deal in the history of pro sports” in an interview with WFAN’s Mike Francesa – and future court dates that will see one side or the other will claim victory. The one thing we don’t have: football for the foreseeable future. 

Gentlemen, there is $9 billion a year at stake here, and, just as importantly, there is the loyalty of your fans, who make that $9 billion possible. It is time to work out a deal that will give the players the money the rightly deserve. And believe me, they deserve every single, solitary penny that can get, because they’re good at what they do, and because they pay a heavy physical price in doing it. It’s also essential that the owners are left with the means to grow the game and create the kind of money that will ultimately benefit everyone, especially the players. 

Gentlemen, it is time to talk to each other across a negotiating table, not in front of a judge.

 

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