Some Doubtful, Others Confident About NFL Labor Deal

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 26 -- With the NFL staring into an abyss of labor discord that it hasn't faced in more than a decade, representatives of the league's players and team owners are prepared to resume negotiations aimed at producing a last-minute settlement that would keep the league's salary cap system in place beyond next season. However, there are widely disparate views on whether the last-ditch talks have much of a chance for success.

NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw has said repeatedly over the past 10 days that he is not optimistic that he can agree with the owners to an extension of the collective bargaining agreement before Friday, when the free agent market is scheduled to open. Upshaw has said that a labor deal would have to be accompanied by a new revenue-sharing agreement among the teams, and the revenue-sharing deliberations among owners have become highly contentious.

But many people on the management side of the dispute remain hopeful that Commissioner Paul Tagliabue can complete a labor deal with Upshaw by Wednesday, then attempt to get owners to come to some sort of consensus on revenue sharing soon thereafter. Some executives of NFL teams have spoken confidently in recent days about that scenario.

One executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the owner of his club had not authorized him to talk publicly about the subject, said the owners are planning to meet March 6-7 in Dallas, and added, "Why have that meeting unless it's to approve a labor deal and do something about revenue sharing?"

The executive said he expected Upshaw and Tagliabue to resume negotiations Monday, complete a deal by Wednesday and agree to postpone the start of free agency until March 10 to give Tagliabue time to go to the owners' meeting and try to push through a revenue-sharing agreement. Others on the management side of the labor dispute were similarly hopeful over the weekend as the NFL scouting combine was conducted here.

"Most deals happen at the end," said Rich McKay, president and general manager of the Atlanta Falcons. "I'm not shocked it's going to the end. I hope it happens. The issues are big. . . . The way it's set up now is, it's a [collective bargaining agreement] decision by Wednesday, and then a revenue-sharing decision soon after that. There's going to be one fall before the other. . . . This is a big issue to the players. It's a big issue to the owners. We're not at the deadline yet, and a lot of these things happen at the end."

Said Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy: "We've got a great thing going. We don't want to ruin it. My experience has been that nothing happens until it has to happen."

Colts President Bill Polian suggested that the bleak public pronouncements by Upshaw and others about the state of negotiations might be a bargaining tactic, and said, "We need a deal because the competitive balance that exists in this league is directly related to the fact we have a salary cap.

"You can't make a bad deal. But somewhere between a deal that makes everyone unhappy, which is usually the best deal, and a deal that makes one side happy and the other side unhappy lies the answer. For the long-term health of the game, we need an extension of the labor deal."

What is not clear is whether the executives were being realistic or merely thinking wishfully. Upshaw originally set last Friday as his deadline for a labor deal. In two addresses to groups of agents last week while he was in Indianapolis, Upshaw left open the possibility of a last-minute settlement with the owners as late as Thursday. But he told the agents he didn't expect it to happen. He told them he would not delay the start of free agency and that they should plan to begin negotiating contracts for their players under the assumption that next season would be the final one with a salary cap.

Upshaw left town after addressing a group of about 500 agents Friday. "The outlook for a new collective bargaining agreement prior to March 3 is not positive," said one prominent agent, Leigh Steinberg.

The current labor deal keeps the salary cap system, first implemented in 1993, in place through the 2006 season, then expires after a 2007 season that would be played without a salary cap. Upshaw has said if a season is played without a cap, he doesn't see a salary cap ever returning. He also has said that once this year's free agent market opens, the chances of a new labor deal being completed will decrease dramatically because the players, at that point, have nearly reached a season without a salary cap.

Upshaw is seeking in the labor negotiations to expand the pool of revenues from which the players are paid, but the two sides have not agreed on a percentage of the new revenue pool the players would receive. People on the owners' side have said they think there could be a labor deal without a revenue-sharing agreement that would increase the degree to which the teams would share locally generated revenues. But Upshaw maintains that the labor and revenue-sharing deals must come simultaneously because clubs with lower revenues could not afford the financial commitment they'd be making to the players under the labor agreement without receiving a revenue boost.

Teams, meantime, are trying to plan for next season with tight salary cap situations worsened by the lack of a labor extension.

"I find ourselves really stuck in the mud," McKay said. "You don't know which way this thing is going to go, so you can't do anything. It's a very unusual time. . . . Labor peace has been great for us in the National Football League. Hopefully, that continues. But we are down to four or five days to go."

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