By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010; D01
MIAMI No matter how nice the temperatures and gentle the breezes this Super Bowl week, no matter how much the television ratings for its games have jumped, no matter how high the NFL sits atop the world of sports and entertainment in America, it's impossible to ignore the menacing cloud just off the horizon. The league and its players appear headed for one of those 1980s-style showdowns, one that threatens to either shut down part of the 2011 season or put those dreaded replacement teams on the field.
It was that intrepid reporter Chad Ochocinco who asked NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith this week where he would rank the likelihood of a work stoppage in 2011 using a 1-10 scale. Smith's answer: "a 14."
Commissioner Roger Goodell's response to that on Friday in his annual state-of-the-league address: "I sure hope he's wrong, and I sure hope this doesn't become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
So, here we are. The commissioner's 55-minute address Friday dealt a little bit with returning pro football to Los Angeles (the bet here is the Jaguars will be there in three years if they don't dramatically increase attendance), a little bit with what is on the international front, a little bit with the application of the Rooney Rule (the commish so believes in it that he has demanded that the rule is followed in the NFL's offices as well as by teams), a little bit with stadium issues. But overwhelmingly, Goodell had to answer questions about the difficulty of getting a new collective bargaining agreement without a work stoppage.
In 1987, the last time the NFL had a regular season work stoppage, management created replacement teams and the union, after some of its most famous members crossed the picket line, suffered a humiliating defeat. In the 20 years afterward, it became sport to kick the longtime union boss, the late Gene Upshaw, as a man who negotiated a bad deal for the players. Apparently, his critics did Upshaw a disservice since it's the owners who now say that the players got the better of them, especially since 2006, and management needs a new deal.
More than a few members of the union and people in and around labor believe the owners want a work stoppage. Goodell emphatically countered that Friday, saying: "We want an agreement. It's absolutely false. You don't make money by shutting down your business. . . . I don't think anybody wants to see a work stoppage. There are no benefits of that. If it comes to that, we all will have failed."
It's no secret that in 1987 many owners and some league executives wanted to bust the union, and in effect did. The climate of cooperation changed dramatically once Paul Tagliabue and Upshaw became "partners," as they called it. Players, over a long period of time, ripped Upshaw as being too cozy with the now-retired Tagliabue. But now all you hear is how the players feel the league is asking them to take an 18 percent pay cut. Goodell presents it differently, of course, saying that the league "wants an 18 percent cost recognition."
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti created a stir earlier in the week when he said some linebackers are making more than a few entire teams. And Goodell said Friday that the owners made $200 million less than in 2006. "The owners and clubs are being squeezed, the economics are not working," he said.
The players say they want to see the clubs' profit-loss statements. Goodell says the NBA and NHL showed their unions the books, but both had long work stoppages anyway.
So, how much of this is posturing -- by both sides -- and how much is serious?
The owners don't seem to be in anywhere near the union-busting mood they were 23 years ago. But unless they get the upper hand in a deal this time around (especially with Smith, with whom they have no relationship, on the other side), they'll probably put replacement players on the field again, because what we learned in 1987 is that players don't have the resources to withstand a protracted work stoppage. Owners do. With the product being more popular now than it ever has been domestically, the owners won't benefit from a work stoppage, but they'd benefit from getting the deal they want, by whatever means necessary.
At the heart of so much of this disagreement seems to be stadium improvement or procurement. Goodell even said, "Capital improvements take a significant investment, a need the league didn't have 20 years ago." It's one of the things that owners put under the umbrella of "cost recognition," reasoning that mutual investment will increase revenue, which will lead to greater compensation for the players . . . or, as Goodell said, "a proper system which recognizes the investment it takes."
It certainly isn't a sexy subject, labor strife, at the start of Super Bowl weekend. The Saints, in their first one, have attracted revelers who couldn't name one player other than Drew Brees or Reggie Bush. Ocean Drive along South Beach has been closed to vehicular traffic as people wander the boulevard hoping to score an autograph or a photo with one of the retired legends who work for ESPN or the NFL Network. Come Sunday, the NFL will do what it does best: command attention with the best and most beloved sports product in America. But when the beachfront TV sets are removed, when the revelers go home, when Ocean Drive is reopened to traffic Monday, the storm cloud will move closer, and the NFL presumably will try to ward off the one thing that has proven it can get in a couple of good shots on the league: a work stoppage.