Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins
Columnist

NFL lockout: Neither side finds a clean exit from this mess

It was so easy to start the NFL lockout. All the owners had to do was turn a key. But it was always going to be a lot harder to end it. It wasn’t going to be over simply with a snap of the owners’ collective fingers, despite their apparent belief that it should be like calling for a waiter and the check.

The owners put a dangerous dynamic into motion when they shut their doors against their own players, with all sorts of unintended consequences. One of them was a cycle of suspicion that made it hard to close a deal. So while it was all very nice that the owners ratified a new collective bargaining agreement Thursday night, no one should have been surprised when there was push back from the players at the eleventh hour, amid accusations of trickery and power plays, and questions of administrative process and legal fallout.

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NFL owners voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of a tentative 10-year agreement to end the lockout, pending player approval.

NFL owners voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of a tentative 10-year agreement to end the lockout, pending player approval.

Confusion reigned: Was there a deal or not? Shortly after the owners voted overwhelmingly to get back to work, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith doused all the excitement with cryptic missives that suggested the players might not approve it on their end: “Issues that need to be collectively bargained remain open . . . there is no agreement between the NFL and the players at this time.”

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson professed to be baffled as to what was the holdup. So were the rest of us.

Obviously, one thing that was happening was that players resented the sudden hurry by owners to ratify a deal, now that preseason revenue was imperiled. The owners threatened them with missed game checks, and dragged them into litigation. Now it was the players’ turn to make the owners wait, while they decided whether to reconstitute their labor union and give up their lawsuits.

If the owners wanted a quick resolution, they never should have driven the players to disband the union in the first place — or argued in court that it was a “sham.” The players were, understandably, wary of recertifying hastily because the owners might well use their haste against them to support a “sham” contention the next time there’s a labor dispute.

“I certainly remember comments from some of the owners about how we might not even be like a real union. Well, guess what? The decision to decertify was important, because at the time we were a real union,” Smith said outside NFLPA headquarters in Washington. “And the decision for our players, as men, to come back as a union is going to be an equally serious and very sober one that they have to make.”

Obviously there was still some gaming going on by both sides, attempts to make the other guy blink. The owners acted as if their proposal was some kind of grand concession, and claimed the players would be reneging on a handshake if they refused to endorse it in the next 24 hours, thus shifting any blame for a failed deal. The players acted as if the owners were trying to stampede them and slip some things past them, and hinted that they might need to think deeply about whether to accept the terms — or whether they would be better off pursuing their antitrust claims and treble damages.

What with all of the huffing and posturing, it was hard to believe the two parties were supposedly in agreement on the most divisive issue: how to split $9.3 billion in revenue. As of late Thursday night, you got the feeling that there were people in the negotiations still thinking in terms of winning and losing, instead of just getting an equitable deal done. They were still playing chicken and trying to make the other feel scared.

But when the large and small print is finally written and the deal is signed, all either party should be entitled to feel is slightly relieved and faintly disappointed. That would mean it’s a fair deal and that the split of gains and concessions went pretty much right down the middle.

Winners: prosperous NFL owners who get 10 years of labor peace and a measure of payroll relief from their players to help with their costs, though not the major giveback they were seeking.

Winners: players who will get better health benefits and will still have brains in 10 years because they got a reduction in offseason workouts and limits to hitting in practices.

Losers: NFL owners who now have to spend 95 percent of the salary cap, and can no longer peel money straight off the top, and who may have poisoned their own well with the public by crying poor and exhibiting ingratitude for the massive infusions of public money and tax breaks they receive.

Losers: rookies who from now on will make dramatically less, because basically, no one believes you should be a millionaire before you’ve done anything.

Losers: players who will see a slightly smaller percentage of league revenue, and who show no sign of understanding that when you make millions, it’s incredibly stupid to live so high that you can’t afford to miss a single paycheck, and if you do decide to live that way, you surrender your negotiating leverage.

Let’s face it: Neither side deserves much credit for reaching a fair conclusion on their own. If the NFL gets labor peace, congratulations for that should go not to the owners or the players or their lawyers, but rather to some people in black robes. The judges really got this thing headed toward settlement, when they sent a strong judicial message that the two sides would be well advised to compromise, otherwise, the grownups were going to take away all the toys.

Winners: the rest of us, who won’t have to listen to this carping and haggling anymore.

 
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