NFL lockout: Owners should treat players as partners, not enemies

Sally Jenkins
Columnist April 29, 2011

No matter what happens in the courtroom, NFL owners need to make a fundamental collective shift in their attitude. If they would treat the players like their partners instead of like underlings, or burdens, or prodigal sons, it would do a lot to dissolve the current tension and forestall future labor strife.

Clearly, the owners aren’t there yet. They continue to resist the idea that players are entitled to much say in business affairs. And they resent the size of player paychecks, especially to rookies who are potential busts.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Which led to a strangely half-joyful, half-cynical rite in Thursday’s first round of the NFL draft at Radio City Music Hall. Publicly, Commissioner Roger Goodell welcomed the expensive young stars of the future with hugs. Meanwhile, the owners were trying to kneecap them economically and on Friday won the right to lock them out again temporarily, in the hopes of convincing an appellate court to support the shutdown longer-term.

You had to respect Goodell’s aplomb and good nature in dealing with the social awkwardness, as well as the jeering displeasure of frustrated fans. Goodell clearly understood the power of the moment for young men who worked their whole lives to be chosen in the first round, and he translated it with exuberant, rib-cracking embraces, throwing out his arms to induct them into the brotherhood. It was obviously the nicest part of his job, and he did it with deep feeling.

How could he not? There was Von Miller of Texas A&M, possibly the game’s next great linebacker, so overwhelmed to be chosen No.2 overall by the Denver Broncos that he buried his face in a handful of tissues, his shoulders shaking. “I had an immediate flashback to Little League football, and to all the people who told me no, who told me I can’t,” he said.

There was Julio Jones of Alabama, a devastatingly talented wide receiver, wearing a demure bow tie and so thrilled to go No.6 to Atlanta that he stammered with excitement. “If I have to block the whole game, that’s what I’ll do,” he said, earnestly. There was Patrick Peterson, the defensive back from Louisiana State chosen at No.5 by the Arizona Cardinals, answering proudly when asked to describe himself: “I’m a young man in a profession.”

If only the goodwill of the draft could have carried over, and created some conciliation in the labor dispute.

But by lunchtime on Friday, the joy was gone, replaced by more wrangling, as both sides filed arguments to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals over whether the lockout should remain suspended or be restored.

The language was both disheartening and paralyzing: the NFL sought a temporary stay in order to obtain a longer stay, pending an appeal of an enjoinment of the lockout. What did all the legalese mean? Who cared. The better question was, why can’t both sides meet in the middle? The draft begged the question of why they are battling as adversaries through lawyers, instead of talking as allies in a tough but mutually enriching business?

Both sides are at fault for using legal threats like nuclear options. But ultimately, the main responsibility for the impasse rests with the owners. They’re the ones who declared the status quo unacceptable, demanded $1 billion in concessions from the players, refused to fully open their books to demonstrate why, and then locked their teams out.

This is not meant to paint all owners as villains simply for being rich. Each has different outlooks and concerns. Some are highly leveraged; some are in distressed markets; some are rolling in cash. Some are genuine entrepreneurs; some got lucky; some inherited their teams. You have to admire the impresario Jerry Jones, even if you disagree with his philosophy in building the $1 billion Cowboys Stadium, the largest sports bar in the world. You have to respect the acumen of Bob Kraft, the basic decency of the Tisch family, the self-effacement of Steve Bisciotti.

But if there has been a consistent group tone emanating from ownership, it’s the faint sound of contempt. The message from the owners to players whether intentional or not is, “You are our inferiors.” According to Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who closely watched the mediation in Washington in March, the owners made the players feel “ignored, belittled, or both,” and were oblivious to their mounting anger.

According to former player Sean Morey, who sat in on mediations, when the players demanded full financial disclosure, the owners replied that “even if we provided that information, you wouldn’t be able to understand it.”

In addition to the message that the players are stupid, the owners have sent the message that they are not entirely worthy of their money. Just the other day Goodell pointed out in a Wall Street Journal editorial that players’ salaries have doubled in the past decade. He failed to mention that the NFL’s income from 1993 to 2011 more than quadrupled, from $2 billion to more than $9 billion, and so did the value of franchises. Rookie Peterson got the message loud and clear. Asked on draft night if he understood the labor dispute, he replied that the owners didn’t want to “put money into guys who aren’t producing enough.”

The owners seem convinced that they are in the right, and that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals will vindicate them legally. But regardless, their lock out strategy is high risk and of questionable wisdom. It seems driven less by genuine cost-control concerns than by a perception that the players are simply undeserving of such a large cut of the pie.

There is no question the owners invest huge sums and deserve some help with escalating costs. But the players make large investments too, with their bodies, and their long-term well-being. They will have briefer careers, more injuries and less job security than arguably any other professional athletes. As long as owners seem insensitive to these risks, and skeptical of the players’ value, there won’t be any enduring labor peace.

The hope here is that the draft created a little thaw. Maybe the owners saw that parade of professional young men and were struck by how intelligent they seemed, how piercingly grateful to be chosen, and how determined to be credits to their organizations. Like some owners, they are entirely self-made. If the owners are the promoters of the game, the players are the performers. The two would seem to be mutually reliant. They should negotiate like it.

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