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.
"The players are positive about getting the season under way," Smith said. "The players want to play. That's obvious. Meanwhile, it's our job to engage in collective bargaining."
There have been long periods of inactivity in the negotiations, and the relationship between the owners and union has been contentious at times. Players and union officials said they received a proposal from the owners calling for the players to take an 18 percent pay cut. League officials called that a mischaracterization by the union, saying that players would not take a pay cut under the proposal because of projected increases in revenues.
The union filed a case with Stephen Burbank, the University of Pennsylvania law professor who serves as the NFL's special master, who resolves disputes between the owners and union arising from their collective bargaining agreement. In it, the union accuses the league of improperly structuring its national TV contracts to provide the owners with what amounts to a work stoppage fund. The owners would continue to receive rights fees from the networks during a lockout. The league contends there's nothing improper about its TV deals, saying such contract language is standard and the money would have to be repaid to the networks at some point if such payments are made during a work stoppage.
Union officials also have been studying the teams' free agent spending during the offseason to determine whether they believe a collusion charge against the owners is merited.
Upshaw said before his death that, barring an agreement with the league, the union would decertify to attempt to prevent a lockout by the owners in 2011, a tactic that potentially would expose the owners to an antitrust lawsuit by the players. Smith has not said if that move will be taken.
"I'm a firm believer in negotiations," Smith said. "The two sides have been able to grow this game over the last 20 to 25 years as business partners. That is the best way to grow the game. We also have to protect the interests of the players. We hope it doesn't come to that."
Other significant issues are tied into this round of bargaining. The players want a mechanism to be able to appeal certain disciplinary decisions made by the commissioner to a neutral arbitrator. The owners want a rookie wage scale and also have proposed that the players agree to be blood-tested for human growth hormone.
The owners want to lengthen the regular season from 16 to 18 games per team and reduce the preseason from four games to two.
"I think you go back to what our wisest founders thought about: Is it good for the game?" Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said. "To me, you always get back to that aspect . . . and so I think you have to focus on that and make sure that it is."
Irsay said he does think an 18-game season would be good for the sport, and that view was widely held at the Atlanta owners meeting.
"I just know from history that when the move came from 14 to 16 [games], there was much discussion, much debate, on the effect," said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee. "And it turned out to be a pretty seamless transition, and it actually ended up being good for the players from a financial standpoint because you're able to grow the league."
The players have expressed concerns about increased injury risks in an 18-game season. But the owners say more regular season games could mean larger rosters and more revenues.
"If there's an opportunity to increase rosters, that's a good thing in today's environment that we're creating more jobs," Goodell said at the Atlanta owners meeting. "Not many unions can say that. . . . If we can create greater revenue, that means more compensation for the players."
The NFL continued to thrive last season even while operating in the sluggish U.S. economy. TV ratings were up 15 percent. Paid attendance was down only 2.2 percent. Less than 9 percent of the 256 regular season games were blacked out on TV in the home team's local market for failing to sell out the required 72 hours before kickoff, far less than the 20 percent that NFL officials said they'd feared entering the season.
The question now is whether the sport will thrive beyond this season.
"I believe both parties want to reach an agreement," Goodell said. "I think both parties will get to an agreement. It's just a matter of when. There's still time to do that without any disruptions. That's our goal."