Lockout Looming: Too Much History

Former NFLPA Chief Gene Upshaw (AP)

The deadline has been extended, but a number of key issues still exist between the NFL and its players. Brad Keller wraps up his look at the issues surrounding the labor unrest.

The players and owners are involved in a negotiation that, ultimately, has a decision tree linked to it. They can agree to a CBA and play football. They can disagree and the players can decertify the union. They can disagree and the owners can lock the players out.

In economic theory, the rule for any decision tree in any negotiation is this: When two parties enter into negotiations, each party will choose the option that minimizes their losses and maximizes their gains provided they are thinking logically. The only thing that will not make them think logically is the existence of bad blood; history between the two parties that makes one want to hurt the other.

To clarify: Locking the players out or decertifying the union makes less economic sense than coming to an agreement. The best economic situation — both for the players and the owners — would be to come to an agreement and continue to play football. But, there's too much bad blood.

There are issues between the players and commissioner Roger Goodell. There are issues on the definition of the word "revenue." The NFLPA did try to build a collusion case against the owners. Those are big items. There is the 18-game schedule issue. That is a big item.

In terms of history, there is one important item that has not been discussed. The owners passed the current CBA by a vote of 30-2, with the two "no" votes being cast by Mike Brown of the Bengals and Ralph Wilson of the Bills, because they didn't know what they were signing.

Brown and Wilson have drawn fire for their old-fashioned ways and thrifty policies, but they were onto something when they voted against the current CBA. They knew that it was a bad deal for the owners, but they were out-voted. Now, they may be viewed as sage "old school" guys that are interested in showing the players their place in the world.

So, the owners have learned from the error of their ways and they're still stinging from the bad blood of the current CBA. They can't understand why the players can't be happy with what they've been handed. The players think that the owners are greedy, old, colluding men. Both sides want more money. Both sides think they have an unfairly small portion of the money that is currently available. Both sides think that they have been treated unfairly — one way or another — for the past five years.

There is currently a tight deadline to ratify a new CBA, just as there was when the current CBA was ratified. Several owners signed something without knowing what they were signing, but Brown and Wilson were the only ones to vote against it. Everyone at the negotiating table for the owners knows what that kind of rash decision leads to, so they will be more cautious this time around. That factor alone may prevent a new CBA and force a lockout.

The bad blood that exists from the last deal and the bad blood from the past five years of tumultuous player-owner-commissioner relations is a sour piece of history that will cloud — and stall — the current negotiations.

When Gene Upshaw passed in August of 2008, it's possible that the chance to renegotiate the CBA died with him. Upshaw was an outstanding president of the NFLPA, always had the players' best interest in mind, and had an excellent relationship with both owners and the commissioner — even Goodell.

If this were a presidential or congressional election, Upshaw would be applauded for his ability to "reach across the aisle" to find the best deal for everyone. This is not to discredit DeMaurice Smith, but Gene Upshaw was a unique individual. He will be missed in general, but he will be particularly missed in these negotiations.

In addition, former Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt and former Giants owner Wellington Mara were also lost. Hunt and Mara were instrumental in getting the original AFL-NFL merger pushed through in 1970 and were voices of reason throughout the rest of the history of the league. They helped resolve the strike/lockout issues of 1981 and 1987, they helped the salary cap pass in 1993, and they secured votes in favor of the last CBA.

Dan Rooney was also very involved in all of those events and is still alive. That's a feather in the cap against the lockout, but he's only one man and doesn't hold the same position of authority in his organization that he once did. He's majority owner, but he's no longer the president of the Steelers. People will still listen to him, people will still respect him, but he no longer has the position of authority that he once had and he no longer has the backing of Hunt and Mara.

Mara, Hunt, Upshaw, and Rooney were the "voice of reason" in previous negotiations when the NFL was facing a critical decision point. This is a critical decision point. With the old leaders gone, new ones will emerge, with the possibility of Jim Irsay stepping into the forefront, or newer owners such as Jerry Richardson, who is a former player, or Bob Kraft or Bob McNair.

It's possible that federal mediator George Cohen will be the one to step up and suggest that the owners and players forestall a lockout or decertification and continue negotiations. But, at this point, it appears as though a deadline deal is highly unlikely and a lockout is inevitable.


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