Monday, December 13, 2010

NFL Armageddon – tick tock goes the NFL Doomsday Clock

As another week passes, week 14 of the 2010 National Football League season ends tonight with a rare Monday night doubleheader with the New York Giants – Minnesota Vikings woe begotten game originally set for Sunday moved to Monday and the ESPN Monday nighter which features the Baltimore Ravens heading to Houston to take on the Texans. In NFL labor news no news is not good news and the only news from the past seven days was really no news to report – at least in terms of the NFL and the NFL Players Association meeting to try and talk about a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

One of the key players on the NFL side in terms of negotiating a new CBA, Jeffrey Pash, the NFL`s vice president of labor and the leagues general council did conduct a far ranging media interview. Pash joined the NFL in 1996 and was brought to the league by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Pash worked with the National Hockey League following time with Washington based law firm Covington & Burling after graduating from Harvard’s Law School.

The current CBA expires on March 3, 2011, NFL Armageddon 2011 will start within hours of the current CBA expiring. With Christmas less then two weeks away, one has to wonder if the two sides do not meet and talk CBA in the next week they may not talk CBA until after January 3. Is time really of the essence in negotiating a new CBA?

``It is a mistake to characterize negotiations on sort of a day-by-day basis, whether you are making progress or whether you or not making progress. The reality is we have got a long way to go and we have a lot of work to do. The only way we are going to make progress and get to an agreement that works for fans, players and clubs is to just have a relentless focus on meetings, on discussions and on analysis.

“From our perspective, we are fully committed to getting that done and we are fully engaged in that process”.

From Pash`s perspective does he believe the NFLPA is focused on getting a deal done?

``I can’t speak for the NFLPA. I know what the NFL’s view is, I know what our owners have instructed us to do and I know the amount of time and focus that this is getting throughout our organization.

``I don’t characterize what is going on at the other side. I just know that it is going to take a shared commitment to accomplish this. One side can’t do it alone. The Players Association should speak for themselves. I shouldn’t speak for them.``

Pash can suggest whatever he wants but from the outside looking in, it appears the two sides are nowhere near meeting and talking about a new CBA.

``I don’t know who is telling you that there is progress or what is leading them to say that. I’m not saying that there isn’t; I’m not saying that there is. Characterizing the negotiations, as I say, on sort of a day-by-day basis like you are reading a stock market chart is a mistake.

``You have to be focused on driving for a comprehensive agreement that will give you long-term improvements that will make the game better for fans, that will allow growth and that will allow the league and the players to take advantage of new technologies and new market opportunities. A lot can be done to improve the game on the field and for the fans in the stadium and at home. There are a lot of opportunities out there. We have to work out a structure to take advantage of those.``

What is disappointing – according to Pash, the two sides have some dates but meetings may or may not happen on those dates – in other words, much to do about nothing.

It has been 10 days since NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith sent a letter to NFL players that created a firestorm of sorts. The letter (a prudent and necessary move on Smith`s part) suggested with the end of the NFL season right around the corner and NFL players receiving their final 2010 pay checks (NFL players are not paid for playoff appearances) to keep their last three pay checks as a form of insurance for when the NFL lockout begins in early March. While it may have been the right decision for the NFLPA to make – the NFL did not quite see Smith`s letter in the same light.

``I have no idea what his deadline was. He never communicated any deadline to us. If there is a deadline and the deadline has passed and that means that we are not going to have an agreement, it would be an important development. He hasn’t communicated that to us.

``I focus on what we can do. I do not try to characterize what the union does. I assume that they will tell us if they have reached a deadline and they are going to stop. If they have a deadline and we are past it and so they are going to talk and their focus is going to be on litigation or whatever else their focus will be on, I assume they will tell us that. If they have a deadline and it has passed and they are keeping that a secret from us, I can’t do anything about that.

``They certainly haven’t told us that they are cutting off negotiations.``

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported in early November that even if a full 2011 NFL season is played, the league stands to lose in excess of $1 billion in revenues if as expected a lockout begins on March 5. Does Pash believe that the 2011 NFL season can be saved?

``I don’t know. That’s certainly the goal. The goal is to have an agreement well before that. The goal is to have an agreement.

``We have every incentive to get an agreement as soon as we can. We have said, we have told the union, and it has been public, that if there is an extended uncertainty that it is costly for both sides. It is costly for us and it is costly for the players. There is every incentive to try to reach an agreement sooner rather than later.

``That’s what our focus is. Are we going to do it? I can’t guarantee that, but I know what our focus is and I know what our directions are from our owners. If both sides are equally committed and equally focused, then there is no reason why we can’t get an agreement.``

Another issue involving the NFL and the Players Association is the decertification process. Each of the 32 NFL teams have already agreed to decertify if asked to do so by the NFLPA.

``If the union goes out of business, then I don’t know who you negotiate with. That would be a serious complication. Who would you make a deal with if the union goes out of business?

``That would be a very fundamental question. Who would speak for the players? Who would have the authority to negotiate? Who would we be permitted to negotiate with? I don’t know. It would be a serious problem``.

Memo to Jeffrey Pash – given that the two sides are not actively meeting, maybe that is the serious issue that needs to be addressed, not whether or not there is a union to negotiate with.

Pash made one thing crystal clear – the key to everything and everyone may be the players agreeing to an 18 game regular season schedule.

``We have had a lot of dialogue on that. Both sides have shown recognition that a season with 18 regular-season and two preseason games is clearly better for fans. It is a more attractive season, it is a season that would deliver more value to the fans and it would allow a lot of growth opportunities that don’t exist with the current structure. Those growth opportunities would be beneficial for the players as well as for the clubs. There is recognition that it is a realistic and easy agreement to reach in the context of an 18-game regular season.

``We clearly do understand and recognize the concerns that the Players’ Association has raised about that kind of a change and have made a number of proposals to try to respond to those concerns. We have had a good dialogue on it and will continue to have a good dialogue on it. It is something that both sides recognize the value of so both sides will work hard to incorporate it into the new agreement.

``I can envision any number of things, but as I said, both sides understand that it is an easier agreement to reach in that context. Does that mean no other agreement is possible? I don’t think I would ever say that but both sides recognize that it would be considerably more difficult.

``I think both sides would recognize that by the fact that we have exchanged detailed proposals on the subject and had detailed discussions on the subject. We will continue to do so.

``Out of respect to not just the process but to the people you are negotiating with, we shouldn’t get into specifics. Doing that is not only unfair to your negotiating partner but it is sort of contrary to, at least, my view as I’ve said that you can’t track these things like a stock ticker. People have to be free to express ideas and thoughts, ask questions and probe: ‘What if we did this? I’m not saying we will and I’m not saying I have authority, but what if we did this? What would you think about this?’

``We have to be able to have those discussions without people waking up the next morning and reading about what was said. In fairness to your negotiating partner, you’ve got to be able to do that.``

Pash`s diatribe aside, here are the facts. NFL owners are looking for the players to agree to an 18 percent cut in their share of football generated revenues (down from the current 60 percent). One would have to believe that if NFL players agree to an 18 game regular season schedule the owners will dramatically improve their offer to the players – it is not as Pash suggests a key, but the key.

The players need to focus on the bigger picture – and those issues include improved health benefits, long term disability and pension. It also does not even look at the issue of guaranteed contracts (of the four major North American sports leagues, NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL) only the NFL does not offer guaranteed contracts.

It might be in the players’ best interests to accept a drop in revenues from football generated revenues, agree to an 18 game schedule but have the owners agree to a CBA that includes a better life during and after their NFL careers – that would be real vision on everyone`s part, however an unlikely event.

``There is sort of a general mantra that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. There are certain issues that are probably more prominent. Certainly economics, an 18-game season, a rookie (wage) system and free agency rules, those would be more prominent, but there are a host of other issues that don’t get much public attention that are important to the players and that are important to the clubs. All of those things have to be resolved.

``Obviously, if you can make a lot of progress and reach some tentative agreements on some of the major issues, some of the less contentious issues do tend to get resolved more easily and perhaps more quickly. As I said, there is a lot of work to do.``

For this is Howard Bloom

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