For the better part of the last six months, when the NFL was embroiled in one of the most contentious work stoppages in its history, NFL Players Association attorney Jeffrey Kessler had become a lightning rod for controversy during heated negotiations with the owners. Throughout the difficult negotiations that eventually resulted in last month's announcement of a 10-year collective bargaining agreement, Kessler's continuing demands for a better deal had so exasperated many people on the owners' side that they were at wits' end trying to appease him.
In an essay to fans published on May 19, for instance, Giants president and co-owner John Mara singled out Kessler as threatening the very underpinnings of the NFL by attacking the draft as illegal. Negotiations seemed to be making progress in early July, only to run into delays due to further requests by the players' side.
Despite the torrent of criticism, Kessler declined to respond publicly, choosing instead to do what the players entrusted him with: negotiate the best deal possible. And now that the deal has been completed, with the only lingering issue finalizing the HGH testing program, Kessler said he is satisfied that the players got a good deal and now stand to benefit from an economic windfall the league expects in the coming years.
"I'm very satisfied with the results," Kessler said in his first public remarks since the league and the players approved the CBA late last month. "The players had certain objectives, and we were able to check off each one of those objectives. It didn't mean the players didn't have to compromise, but that's the only way you get a deal. The players understood the compromises were fair and necessary, and in the end created a very good deal from the players' standpoint.
"The players are satisfied with the economics that will continue to reward them as the NFL does better and better," he said. "They've achieved substantial improvements in health, safety and working conditions, which were a major priority in these negotiations."
Kessler was aware of the biting criticism directed his way - even from fans who were following the negotiations - but opted not to respond while the negotiations were ongoing.
"My role is to be the counsel for the players," he said. "The negotiations aren't about me. Therefore, I felt no need or desire to respond to some of the things that were reported in the media. I can tell you that many of these things that were reported as fact were fiction, and I'll let it go at that."
Kessler declined to specify which reports he thought were inaccurate, but did say his thoughts on the draft were misunderstood.
"I never stated that the NFL players weren't willing to include agreement to a draft as part of an overall settlement," Kessler said. "They've done that in the past, and they did that again."
Kessler said the key to achieving a successful result for the players was their willingness to remain unified.
"We always believed that if the players stayed unified under the leadership of [NFLPA executive director] DeMaurice Smith and the players who were actively involved in the negotiations, like Jeff Saturday [of the Colts], Dominique Foxworth [of the Ravens], Kevin Mawae and Sean Morey. If the players stayed together, in the end, we thought there would be a fair deal in place. That happened through thick and thin, through legal victories, through good days, bad days and neutral days. The players never wavered, and that's what led us to a good result."
Interestingly enough, the negotiations seemed to take a significant turn when Kessler and other attorneys from both sides were asked to leave the talks for a period of time, beginning in early June when secret talks were held in Chicago.
"That was an important step," Mara said after the owners voted to approve the CBA. "We had a dinner with [the players' side] the night before that meeting, just a social dinner. But I just found that the dialogue the next day was a lot more productive, a lot friendlier. Among the participants at the dinner: Mara and fellow owners Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and Jerry Richardson, commissioner Roger Goodell, Smith and players Foxworth, Saturday, Mike Vrabel, Kevin Mawae and Tony Richardson.
"We did that a couple of times, and I think that was positive," Mara said. "I think the most important thing from our point of view that the ownership had to stay unified and resolute, and we did that. But we also had to deal with the players with respect and show them the respect to which they're entitled. Once we started talking to them man to man, it started to move the process along, as opposed to having our attorneys go back and forth.
"I think we understood each other a lot better, and we were able to just talk to each other," said Richardson, who last played for the Jets. "There were no lawyers, it was just us, and I think that really was a turning point."
Kessler said he understood why the removal of the attorneys at that point in the talks was important.
"What I think happened is that when the negotiations broke up in March, there were some bad feelings between the players and the owners about things that had been said and things that had occurred," he said. "They are the principals in the negotiations, and I think it was very important to meet together and restore their sense of trust. Lawyers can only do what their principals decide. If you don't have trust between the principals, it's very hard to make progress. Getting them together to restore their trust and getting a renewed sense of common purpose was a turning point. Of that, I have no doubt."
Kessler, NFL lead attorney Jeff Pash and other attorneys eventually returned to the talks to hammer out the details of the agreement, which was formally announced in front of the NFLPA's Washington, D.C. headquarters on July 25.
The NFL quickly resumed operations after that, and only one preseason game - the annual Hall of Fame game - had to be canceled.
"This was always about the players," Kessler said. "All things considered, the players feel it was the right struggle, and the results were good. They have football back, the fans, can enjoy the game, and the players can play, which is what they've wanted."
And now it's on to another sport for Kessler, who is representing the NBA Players Association in its ongoing dispute with NBA owners. The basketball lockout could be even more problematic for Kessler and his constituents.
"The disputes are not exactly the same, but I think they can both learn from things that happened in football that probably guide their thinking in basketball," Kessler said. "In basketball, [NBAPA executive director] Billy Hunter is hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. The union is determined to try to get a deal without losing games, but there is a deep sense of pessimism over the fact the NBA is not moving forward and bargaining in good faith, at least from the union's standpoint."
Kessler said the NBA has plenty to lose after coming off such a successful season.
"We don't want to see a game of basketball missed when you're coming off the best season in recent memory," he said. "It strikes us that it's destructive to the fans, to the game and to owners and players alike. If we can find a fair deal to avoid that, that's what the players are going to try to do."