Prospect of work stoppage in 2011 threatens NFL

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 3:41 PM

The NFL season gets under way with an enjoy-it-while-you-can feeling.

The sport continues to ride a wave of unprecedented popularity and prosperity, and there is nothing to suggest that the next five months will bring anything other than more of the same: soaring television ratings, packed stadiums in most cities and an on-field product that seems to be giving customers what they want.

No one in the league, however, knows what will come after the Super Bowl in February. The labor deal between the franchise owners and the players' union expires after the season. And with players and union officials predicting that players will be locked out by owners in 2011, the NFL appears closer to labor strife than it has been in more than two decades.

"Look at baseball," said former Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants running back Brian Mitchell, whose rookie season in the NFL - 1990 - came three years after the last players' strike. "Look at hockey. They had to fight to get their fans back [after work stoppages]. Football doesn't want to be like that. Football is king."

Mitchell predicts there will be a settlement between the owners and players before a work stoppage. Others wonder. For now, the league is doing its best to keep fans focused on the season at hand.

"There's so much time between now and then and there's so much opportunity for us to get these issues resolved," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at a late-August owners meeting in Atlanta. "I'm going to be focused on getting them resolved between now and then. That's what's most critical for us. We have a great season ahead of us and that will be the focus: football in 2010."

But what about football in 2011? That is a far trickier issue. Goodell has taken the approach of declining to characterize the state of the negotiations with the union. Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, the D.C. attorney who was elected the executive director of the NFL Players Association after longtime union chief Gene Upshaw's death in 2008, are overseeing their first set of labor negotiations.

Upshaw and Paul Tagliabue, Goodell's predecessor, who retired as NFL commissioner months after the owners approved an extension of the labor deal in 2006, maintained labor peace after strikes by the players in 1982 and 1987. Owners and players alike have thrived financially as the NFL has grown into an $8 billion-a-year industry.

But the owners quickly came to believe that the labor settlement they ratified in 2006, which gave the players about 60 percent of total league revenue under the salary cap system, was overly favorable to players. The owners voted in May 2008 to exercise a reopener clause in the deal, ending it two years early. This season is being played without a salary cap. The labor deal expires next spring, although there is a provision for a draft to take place.

Smith said days before last season's Super Bowl that the chances of a lockout by the owners in 2011 were "a 14" on a scale of one to 10. But he said last week that the tone of the negotiations had improved lately.

"I think it's a good thing we are continuing to talk and have made some progress on some things," he said. "That's positive. The conversations and the negotiations have been better and more constructive. As far as a lockout, until we get a deal signed, the players have to prepare for the worst as they hope for the best."

Smith called it positive that the owners had chosen to negotiate their proposal for a longer season with the players, and positive that the health and safety of the players are being discussed extensively.

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