Goodell, Smith set to kick off NFL labor negotiations ahead of Super Bowl

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 11:48 PM

DALLAS - The quarterbacks for Super Bowl XLV, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, are towering figures here this week. So, too, are the coaches, Mike Tomlin of the Steelers and Mike McCarthy of the Packers.

But even as the NFL readies for its showcase on-field spectacle, no two people loom larger in the sport right now than NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the players' union.

It is difficult to cast a shadow over an event as mammoth as the Super Bowl. But clearly there are storm clouds over this weekend's game, as the NFL braces for a possible lockout of players by franchise owners next month that would be the league's first work stoppage in more than two decades.

Owners, players and the countless others who make the NFL a $9 billion a year industry are watching how Goodell and Smith oversee their first set of NFL labor negotiations. Their predecessors, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and late union chief Gene Upshaw, forged a lasting labor peace that has been critical to the sport's success.

"Roger and De, they'll be the ones to close the door and eventually get something done," said Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay as he stood in the lobby of an Atlanta airport hotel after a recent owners' meeting.

That's what happened when Tagliabue and Upshaw were in charge, and the result was that owners and players alike thrived. The NFL put its labor strife of the 1980s, when there were player strikes in '82 and '87, behind it and became the nation's most popular and prosperous sport, with television ratings that continue to soar.

"Gene and Paul had really developed a great relationship and trust with each other," Packers President Mark Murphy said here this week. "Hopefully De and Roger can have a similar relationship over time. . . . It just takes time."

But Goodell and Smith don't have a lot of time. The current labor deal, crafted on the watch of Tagliabue and Upshaw in 2006, expires March 4. Players and union officials have said they expect owners to lock out players soon thereafter. Smith and Goodell met Monday in New York, and negotiations are scheduled to resume Saturday in the Dallas area - the first full bargaining session since before Thanksgiving.

"It seems like there always needs to be a deadline for these things to get done," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "So the closer we get to the deadline, I think there's probably a greater possibility of something getting done. Hopefully that's kind of what's getting set up here the next few weeks."

Come Monday, it's labor

This year's Super Bowl is an attractive matchup of two tradition-rich teams, and Sunday's game likely will draw a record-setting TV audience. But talk about the game has been interrupted at times this week by dire labor forecasts, and the sport's leaders say they know an extended lockout could have ramifications. The league has projected that it would lose about $1 billion in potential revenue if there's no labor settlement until September.

"I think people are concerned this week about the game," former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms said. "But once the game ends, once you get to Monday, it will be all about the labor."

Smith is scheduled to speak to reporters Thursday at the union's annual Super Bowl week news conference. Goodell's annual state-of-the-league news conference is scheduled for Friday. Smith spoke to reporters Thursday at the union's annual news conference during Super Bowl week and said: "I've got a great relationship with Roger. And without a good relationship between the two of us, this is not going to happen."

But what they say publicly may be far less important than what is said behind closed doors Saturday and in coming weeks.

For years, a widely held view around the league was that the personal relationship between Tagliabue and Upshaw played a significant role in the sport's labor peace. Many continue to believe that. But Tagliabue rejected that notion this week. He said "the idea that we had an easy relationship is absolutely crazy."

In a telephone interview, Tagliabue said: "I think personal relationships are irrelevant. When I first got a deal done with Gene, I didn't have any relationship with him other than in a courtroom. We were adversaries for 20 years. Relationships don't produce agreements. Agreements might produce a relationship over the years. But it's really balancing the economics and understanding the other side's priorities and concerns."

The NFL's longstanding system of free agency and a salary cap were put in place in the early 1990s as part of a settlement of antitrust litigation filed by the players. Under Tagliabue and Upshaw, the two sides kept that system in place with a series of extensions of the labor deal. The 2006 negotiations that produced the latest extension were contentious, but the owners ratified the settlement after Tagliabue agreed to present Upshaw's final offer to them.

Tagliabue said this week that "Gene and I understood this deal would be short term and it would be transitional" because of volatility in the economics of stadium construction and television rights fees.

"They're never easy," Tagliabue said. "There's always a perception that one side or the other ended up with a better deal. When we were negotiating in '05 and '06, the players were constantly pointing to the fact they were getting a smaller percentage of the revenue than they expected."

Tagliabue retired and Goodell, formerly his top lieutenant, was elected commissioner in August 2006. The owners voted in May 2008 to exercise a reopener clause in the labor deal, calling it overly favorable to the players, and end it two years early. Upshaw died in August 2008. The players elected an outsider in Smith, a D.C. lawyer, as the union's executive director in March 2009.

"I think you have to start out with some respect for the other person's situation, and I think Roger and DeMaurice Smith have that. . . . Each side has to manage a broad and diverse constituency," Tagliabue said. "On Roger's side, it's 32 owners. You have to satisfy everybody's views on what is a sensible deal. . . . DeMaurice Smith has to satisfy a wide range of constituencies with the players."

'The players are together'

This season was played without a salary cap under the terms of the labor deal. The owners and players always wrote an uncapped final season into their labor deals as an incentive to negotiate extensions early. Upshaw said the salary cap never would return if it was allowed to disappear. But it never came to that under Tagliabue and him.

Now, the league maintains that the economics of the sport must change to give owners more incentive to re-invest in the product. The owners have proposed that more money be taken out of the revenue pool before the players' portion is calculated. The players have called that a pay cut. They also have expressed wariness about the owners' proposal to lengthen the regular season from 16 to 18 games.

The crucial question for the union is whether players will remain united behind Smith when their paychecks are cut off and the threat of canceled games looms.

New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie told reporters last week that leaders of both the union and the league needed to stop talking about reaching an agreement and get a deal done. Others say the players are strongly unified.

"The players are together," Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "If we could prevent a lockout, we would."

The owners, similarly, will come under intense pressure from fans if it looks like the nation's most popular game won't be played in the fall. Murphy, who served as a union rep when he played for the Washington Redskins, said that "having been on the other side, a work stoppage really doesn't help anybody. I also realize that when you get into a work-stoppage situation, the fans don't like either side. It's really kind of a pox on both sides. They just want to see football played."

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