As New Season Begins, Number of Significant Challenges Confront NFL

Players' union chief DeMaurice Smith is in a tough position, perhaps being forced to choose between financial givebacks or an end to labor peace.
Players' union chief DeMaurice Smith is in a tough position, perhaps being forced to choose between financial givebacks or an end to labor peace. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009

The NFL rarely is about understatement, and its season opens Thursday night in Pittsburgh with all the fanfare that normally accompanies a signature event for the country's most popular sports league. There will be a pregame concert with Tim McGraw and the Black Eyed Peas, a capacity crowd at Heinz Field and a national television audience for the NBC broadcast of the game between the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers and the Tennessee Titans.

But as the new season begins, a number of significant challenges are confronting a league that for years has enjoyed an unprecedented run of growth and prosperity. About a dozen of the 32 NFL franchises have had problems selling tickets in the uncertain economy, to the point that one out of every five games -- 50 or more in all -- could be blacked out on television in the local market of the home team this season. Last season only nine games were blacked out.

There has been little apparent progress in labor negotiations between franchise owners and the NFL Players Association, leaving Commissioner Roger Goodell to say there is a strong possibility that next season will be played without a salary cap. Players are preparing for what they say could be a lockout by the owners in 2011.

"Believe me, you don't take for granted the prosperity," Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said recently. "Against the backdrop of the way the economy's been and the other sports leagues, you're very thankful for that and you don't take it for granted."

The NFL has not had a work stoppage since 1987, but there have been rumblings of labor unrest since Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw -- respectively, the league's commissioner and executive director of the players' union at the time -- shepherded through an extension of the collective bargaining agreement in 2006.

Just about everyone in the sport has thrived under the free agency and salary cap system in place since 1993. League revenue has increased to approximately $8 billion per season and the players' share of that revenue has been upped to about 60 percent. But owners say the deal struck in 2006 has been too expensive. They voted last year to end the agreement two years ahead of schedule, leaving this season as the final one with a salary cap, which sets a ceiling on how much money each team can pay in players' salaries.

The owners want the players to accept a smaller slice of the revenue pie and focus on finding ways to work with the owners to increase total revenue to help make up the difference. Players have said they won't agree to take a smaller percentage of revenue.

The dispute puts DeMaurice Smith, the D.C. lawyer elected by the players in March to succeed Upshaw, in a difficult position. Unless the owners back down, Smith might have to choose between being the players' union chief who agreed to financial givebacks or the one who presided over the end of the league's labor peace. It's all part of a new dynamic, with Goodell and Smith leading their first set of labor negotiations after Tagliabue's retirement in the fall of 2006 and Upshaw's death from pancreatic cancer last year.

Smith met last week with economists, lawyers and other advisers to discuss strategies to counteract a prospective lockout -- the union in the past has vowed to decertify before any lockout, potentially exposing the owners to antitrust damages -- and players were told to save at least 25 percent of their salaries in each of the next two seasons to protect themselves.

"If you can save more, all the better," New York Giants center Shaun O'Hara, his team's union representative, said in a written statement on the union's Web site. "It's a good opportunity to give guys direction and a tool to better serve them in the future. Having the ability to plan two years in advance will alleviate a lot of stress down the road."

Goodell met with Smith over lunch last week in Washington. But there have been only two formal bargaining sessions, and Goodell said on Sept. 3 that the "minimal" progress in negotiations thus far makes it "a strong reality" that the 2010 season will be played minus a salary cap.

"I'm not much for a lot of rhetoric, and to me this has to be said at the table and let's start negotiating," Goodell said. "And that was my clear message to [Smith last] week. That's our intent is to get him to start negotiating and dealing with these issues privately and in a constructive way that will lead to an agreement. And the owners' intent here is to get to an agreement. The idea that the owners are looking for a lockout and that would be their objective is foolish. That's really not a practical outcome for them in the sense of being beneficial to the league."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company