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Original Issue

A Game in Flames

Issues of trust and transparency led to the collapse of NFL labor talks. It might be left to the courts to put out the fire

An air of uncertainty filled an upstairs conference room at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service headquarters in downtown Washington on the morning of March 2. For the first time in 13 meetings with mediator George Cohen, the 10 owners on the NFL's labor committee were sitting across the negotiating table from the players on the union's executive committee.

Only one day remained before the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, and everyone understood that a failure to find middle ground before 11:59 p.m. the next day would result in the league's first work stoppage since 1987.

Cohen began the session by giving each owner an opportunity to speak. Jerry Jones, never one to pass up center stage, tried to lighten the mood by talking of his upbringing and the business acumen that led to his purchase of the Cowboys 22 years ago. The tenor changed when he began discussing how two years of negotiations had failed to bring the sides closer. What he said next, with arched eyebrows, helped steer the situation past the point of no return.

"I don't think we've got your attention," Jones said to the players, several of whom recounted the incident to SI. "You clearly don't understand what we're saying, and we're not hearing what you're saying. So I guess we're going to have to show you to get your attention."

Jones tapped his fists together for emphasis—the players interpreted it as a sign that a lockout was coming—then stood and walked toward the door. As he reached the end of the table, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, another labor hawk, began to rise, but Robert Kraft of the Patriots, who was sitting next to him, put a hand on Richardson's forearm and kept him from going.

If Jones's intention was to intimidate the players, he failed. "I think everybody in the room thought it was overly dramatic, almost hilarious," one player said. "It was like a Jerry Maguire moment. You know, 'I'm leaving. Who's coming with me?' I know it didn't scare any of us."

Jones's action, however, did help convince the players that the owners were serious about shutting down the game if the union didn't acquiesce to their core demand: an increase in the "expense credit," the amount the owners take off the top before sharing revenues with the players. That figure was approximately $1 billion in 2010, and the owners were asking for an additional $1 billion for such expenses as stadium construction and renovations, international games and the development of and the NFL Network. The owners' attitude also made the players more adamant that franchises should open their books to prove they needed the increase, especially in light of the record $9.3 billion the NFL generated in 2010.

Talks finally skidded over the cliff's edge last Friday. The league had put a comprehensive—and on some points player-friendly—proposal on the table, but the Players Association deemed the offer insufficient, renounced its rights as a union and filed an injunction against the lockout and an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL in federal court in Minnesota. Among the 10 plaintiffs named in the suit are star quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. The league responded as expected by locking out the players, and now the only certainty is that the next stage in the drama will be in the courts.

How did matters get to this point? Over money and trust. Put aside the talk about an 18-game season, a rookie wage scale and changes in benefits for active and retired players, all fairly standard collective bargaining matters. These negotiations were about how to split revenues that are projected to continue to rise in coming years.

In 2006 the owners voted 30--2 in favor of the last CBA, but they quickly came to believe that the agreement—which gave players about 60% of revenues after the expense credit—was too costly, so in 2008 they announced that they would exercise their right to opt out of the final two years of the CBA. "The 2006 deal was the first time we felt like there was a fair deal," says Chiefs guard Brian Waters, a member of the players' executive committee. "So to come back here and be in the position we're in. ... You feel like you're back to the point where you're not being taken seriously."

The league repeatedly has said the players were more interested in settling the sides' differences through litigation than negotiation, assuming they'd get a more favorable deal in the courts. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and the players contend that the league was stringing them along, and that an uninterrupted season would be threatened the longer the talks ensued. "Decertification allows us to negotiate and get a deal in place while we continue to play," said Colts center Jeff Saturday, another executive committee member. "What we don't want to happen is, the owners lock us out and we have to wait six months before we can decertify and file the lawsuits."

The players' contention that the owners had long been planning for a lockout was buttressed by a March 1 appellate ruling by U.S. Eighth District judge David Doty. He reversed a special master's decision that would have given the NFL access to $4 billion from its renegotiated TV contracts even if the 2011 season was canceled. Doty wrote: "The record shows that the NFL undertook contract renegotiations to advance its own interest and harm the interests of the players."

Evidence from the Doty hearing also revealed that the owners had anticipated a lockout as far back as 2008. Commissioner Roger Goodell testified that the NFL told Fox Sports that a refusal to provide lockout provisions in a new contract would be a "deal breaker." Such language, the players argue, indicated that the owners were more interested in strong-arming them than in getting a fair deal done.

To explain their insistence on transparency, players point to a separate 1992 antitrust lawsuit involving the NFL. In that case, Roger Noll, a Stanford economics professor, testified that the league's $1.3 billion in revenue was "substantially understated" because of the owners' accounting methods. For instance, Eagles owner Norman Braman reportedly paid himself a salary of $7.5 million in 1990 and recorded it under general expenses instead of profit. Against that backdrop, the players found it increasingly difficult to accept the NFL's need for additional expense credits without first seeing the teams' detailed financial statements.

Jeffrey Pash, the NFL's chief lawyer, says that planning for a lockout is accepted practice under labor law, and that collective bargaining, rather than litigation, remains the best way to settle the sides' differences. "We're not making a claim of financial distress, such that [opening the books] is required under labor laws. We told [the players] we'd give them five years' worth of aggregate leaguewide profitability information, confirmed by an independent accounting firm."

Owners also argue they were more flexible in the negotiations than the players. On Friday the two sides were $640 million apart on the 2011 salary cap number; the NFL offered to split the difference. The union, however, would not move from its best offer of an additional $137.5 million a year for four years without a detailed accounting of each team's books, a demand it had requested as early as May 2009. Says Pash, "In November '09 we asked for an 18 percent rollback, and we didn't get that either. Demands that you make before your first-ever face-to-face bargaining session might not be where you end up two years later."

Ultimately, players contend that the owners initiated the standoff, so the burden of proof rests with them. "Not once have the players asked for more money during this negotiation," Brees said on Friday. "Past players sacrificed a great deal to give us what we have now, and we will not lay down for a second to give that up."

It may come down to a court to decide if they have to.

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Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO

BUBBLE BURST Players perceived Jones (far right, with Goodell) to be overly contentious, souring the mood in negotiations.



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MARCHING OUT Smith (in hat) and his team could not reach an accord with Richardson (far right) and the owners; now Brees (on phone) is one plaintiff in the players' antitrust suit.



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