NFL, Players Association attempt to avoid a lockout with time running out on collective bargaining agreement
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 12:14 AM
NFL owners are scheduled to gather Wednesday in the Dallas area for a one-day meeting with time beginning to run short - in the NFL season and in the period that remains for them to reach a labor pact to avoid a confrontation next year.
The collective bargaining agreement between the owners and NFL Players Association expires in March. Both sides say they want to find a way by then to complete negotiations on an extension that would preserve the longstanding labor peace that has been a crucial part of the sport's winning economic formula.
If that doesn't happen, the current negotiations could give way to a showdown that may include a lockout of the players by the owners or the players decertifying the union in a bid to avoid being locked out.
"They are in the midst of a very difficult negotiation," said Gabriel Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University. "You're going to hear more and more about a potential lockout and decertification as we get closer to the end of the season. At this point, I'd say it's still too early to say those possibilities are more than a threat."
Both sides say they remain focused on negotiations. The sense of urgency seems to have increased in recent weeks as the owners and players try to avoid the NFL's first work stoppage since strikes by the players in 1982 and '87. There was a glimmer of hope last week when the league and union agreed that the NFLPA could postpone filing a collusion accusation against the owners. It wasn't a labor settlement, but it showed the two sides could agree on something.
"Keep in mind, most collective bargaining agreements in what I'll call the work-a-day world, negotiations are begun 90 days maybe prior to expiration," Bob Batterman, an attorney for the owners, said during an October interview in his office in New York. "We started here two years in advance . . . We can get this thing done. Will we? I don't know."
The stakes are very high for an industry with annual revenues approaching $9 billion. The NFL, with its lofty television ratings, is the undisputed king of professional sports leagues in the United States. But the peaceful business partnership that was forged by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and late union chief Gene Upshaw soon could be threatened.
Players and DeMaurice Smith, the union's executive director, have said they expect the players to be locked out next year. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and others on the management side have said the owners want an agreement that addresses what the owners consider the sport's economic problems.
"While I think it would be preferable to have a deal before the end of the year, the reality is we don't have one," Smith said Tuesday. "We told every player to prepare for the lockout. We continue to see steps being taken by the league to prepare for that lockout."
If there is a lockout, it could begin in March. The current labor deal contains a provision that the NFL draft still would be held. But other offseason activities, such as free agent maneuvering and teams' workouts and practices, would be halted.
Public pressure on the two sides to reach a settlement likely would increase as next season nears. There would be no games with replacement players. The use of replacement workers during a lockout is generally not permitted under labor law, experts say.
But the players could attempt to avert a lockout by decertifying the union - in effect, putting the union out of business as the bargaining agent for the players. The move would expose the owners to a potential antitrust lawsuit by the players. The owners still could lock them out, experts say, but the risks for them would increase because the lockout could be added to any antitrust claim filed by the players.