NFL: Players, owners got it right

 

In the final four-day span of the NFL’s exhausting 136-day
lockout, everything finally went the right way.
By Bryan Burwell – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

In the final four-day span of the NFL’s exhausting 136-day lockout, everything finally went the right way. What began uncomfortably in Atlanta on Thursday evening like an acrimonious shotgun wedding ended Monday afternoon in Washington with suddenly benevolent owners and surprisingly gracious players standing side by side like one big happy football family again.

Finally, they got it right. The four-month work stoppage ended with a surprising absence of malice and a long-awaited mood of reconciliation, and not a minute too soon. The owners finally put away their manor-born superiority and the players ditched their fast-twitch suspicious instincts and they wisely ground down the final details of the collective bargaining agreement only a few days after it seemed like this kind of labor peace was on the verge of unraveling at the seams.

To best describe the relief that everyone feels about the resolution of this challenging negotiating tussle, we need go no further than the first words out of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s mouth as he spontaneously interrupted NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith’s opening remarks.

“We’re happy we got an agreement that …” Smith began to say.

“Yes we are!” Goodell blurted, almost like he was saying “amen” to a preacher’s rousing sermon.

The smiles on everyone’s faces revealed the end of an unlikely story that concluded with the National Football League escaping with a few minor bumps and superficial wounds. With only one preseason game lost and a few missed preseason practices as collateral damage, the NFL reopened for business Monday afternoon with the players and owners showing ultimately that they can work together as business partners and share the riches of a $9.3 billion revenue pie without first biting off each others’ arms, fingers or noses as some demented, ego-driven sport.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Goodell during the joint news conference in front of the NFLPA’s Washington offices. “Football’s back and that’s great news for everybody. … Having a 10-year agreement is extraordinarily great for our game. Everybody worked hard, everybody had a passion, everybody believed in this game of football and what we could do to make our game better, and I believe this agreement will make our game better.”

It’s better because in the 11th hour there were enough smart people in the room who realized that there was enough money on the table to share. In the end, Smith and Goodell did their best work behind the scenes to ensure the testosterone that flows through their diverse constituencies didn’t wreck this thing in the end. And it’s better because according to both the players and owners, the coolest heads in the room – players Jeff Saturday and Dominique Foxworth and Patriots owner Robert Kraft – refused to let anyone else at the negotiating table wreck this deal with unproductive, ego-measuring tactics.

When you saw Saturday, the big center for the Indianapolis Colts, wrapping his paws around the shoulders of diminutive Kraft, it was just the sort of portrait that was needed at the conclusion of this long and mostly contentious fight. Kraft is still mourning the death of his wife Myra, who passed away last week after a long bout with cancer, yet he rarely missed any of the negotiating sessions and was always there to strike a blow for moderation even when others such as Carolina owner Jerry Richardson played the role of negotiating bad cop throughout the process.

Kraft was near tears when Saturday told reporters of his late wife’s special role in helping forge this agreement. “A special thanks (goes) to Myra Kraft, who even in her weakest moment allowed Mr. Kraft to come and fight this out,” Saturday said. “And without him, this deal does not get done. He is a man who helped us save football, and we are grateful for that.”

In the last few days of the lockout, after three years of affecting the postures of dueling gunmen, the NFL’s millionaires and billionaires changed up. Instead of trying to gun one another down, they took the tremendous first steps toward being sensible business partners rather than belligerent adversaries.

A big part of that was a change in what was the owners’ take-it-or-leave-it attitude concerning how the players should reconstitute as a union. According to several sources on the players’ side of the table, they were highly insulted when they saw that the owners’ proposal last Thursday had a clause in it that demanded that the NFLPA had to be re-certified before training camps could reopen.

The players believed there were far too many details that needed to be worked out and putting a take-it-or-leave-it deadline on the process was an unnecessary show of negotiating arrogance and they reacted accordingly. But Monday, the deal that both sides signed off on, and the one that will be presented to the players this week for ratification, did not include that stringent re-certification deadline. That simple difference provided the players with some protection in terms of proper protection regarding legal issues and administrative procedures that allows both sides to complete all the final and significant minutiae in this exhaustive agreement.

The doors to practice facilities will open this morning and training camps will begin Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, with union re-certification votes beginning around the league as soon as full squads report for the start of camps. A full vote should be completed by the weekend.

Now the owners and players have an entire decade to begin rebuilding bridges and regaining trust. Now they are wedded to each other for 10 uninterrupted years and they have constructed a deal that represents how much they both understand the importance of being business partners rather than adversaries.

There are terms in this agreement that make winners of both the players and owners. When you see that players will now be eligible for the NFL’s medical plan for the rest of their lives, that is an enormous win for the players. In the old agreement, current players received post-career health care for the first five years after retirement. But what good was that five-year window for most players, who retired before 40 and usually saw their health care protection expire before they were 50?

When you see the new terms for paying rookie draftees, you immediately see what the owners have to consider to be great news in this new agreement. A year ago, as the No.1 pick in the draft, Sam Bradford received a six-year deal worth $78 million, with $50 million guaranteed. Under the new deal, Cam Newton will receive no more than $22 million over four years.

The language of this entire agreement seems to be filled with such obvious conciliatory language throughout. Four days ago, the players were feeling like they had been hoodwinked. Days after the expired collective bargaining agreement was signed in 2006, the owners were convinced they were bamboozled. Today, no one is talking that way. And if it was Kraft who was responsible for that change in attitude and the ultimate results that got the two sides to sign this deal, then he surely deserves all the praise he received Monday.

And while we’re patting him on the back for that, Kraft also deserves some credit for being the first one Monday to recognize the need for mending relations with NFL fans as well. While both owners and players opened up their remarks with conciliatory bon mots for their fellow negotiators, Kraft had the good sense to say the one thing the football public was dying to hear.

I’m sorry.

“On behalf of both sides,” he said, “I’d like to apologize to the fans (because) for the past five or six months we’ve been talking about the business of football and not what goes on the field.”

Amen to that. Now let the healing and the football begin.

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