NFL poised for a labor confrontation as deadline for lockout looms

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 12:58 AM

INDIANAPOLIS - Negotiators for the NFL and the players' union are scheduled to walk into the offices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service on K Street in downtown D.C. sometime Tuesday. What happens over the following 72 hours or so promises to play a large role in shaping the future of the nation's most prosperous sport.

By Friday, it's possible that the league's franchise owners will have locked out the players to plunge the NFL into its first work stoppage since strikes by the players in 1982 and '87. Or that the two sides will be involved in litigation with the owners preparing to defend themselves against an antitrust lawsuit by the players after the players decertify the union. Or perhaps even both, although legal experts call the combination of antitrust litigation and a lockout unlikely.

Some within the sport wonder how it has gotten to this point at a time when television ratings continue to soar and approximately $9 billion in annual revenues pour into the sport's coffers. This month's Super Bowl was the most-watched TV program in history , drawing around 111 million viewers.

"It's a very healthy game," Drew Rosenhaus, a prominent agent representing dozens of NFL players, said here Friday. "There's a lot of money being made. I haven't seen any reason why the owners wouldn't want to get a deal done. I've been an agent for 23 years and there hasn't been a work stoppage. Why would there be now? Things have never been better. What's the problem? I'm still waiting to find out."

The main problem, it appears, is revenue sharing under a salary cap system. The inability of the league and its players' union to reach a compromise on that issue has some people within the sport bracing for the worst.

DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, addressed about 700 agents here Friday. One agent said he emerged from the meeting with the impression that the union and league are far from a deal.

"His position is that we want a deal and the NFL isn't moving and only says no," said the agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the labor negotiations are at a sensitive stage.

If there is a lockout, the free agent market wouldn't open as scheduled Friday. All free agent signings and trades would be put on hold. Coaches wouldn't be permitted to have contact with players. The league's drug-testing program for players wouldn't be in effect.

"It's not just the players and the union," Rosenhaus said. "The owners need to be concerned, too. They've invested a tremendous amount of money in the players that they have under contract. . . . They can't sign guys. They can't make trades. They're limited during the draft. They can only trade picks. . . . They can't work their guys out. Their coaches can't talk to their players. The drug program ends. This is really a huge problem for the owners."

The NFL draft would take place as scheduled in April even if there is a lockout; the current labor deal contains a provision for that. So teams are going about their normal draft-related preparations, evaluating players at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

"The people who are involved in [the labor negotiations] are working hard," Jacksonville Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio said after listening to a 45-minute briefing by league officials Thursday evening for coaches and general managers about operational issues related to the labor situation. "I'll just focus on the things that I need to focus on. We're trying to just prepare for the draft and our own stuff."

The league has estimated the sport would lose about $1 billion in potential revenues if there's not a labor settlement until September, and teams would have to make decisions during a work stoppage about potential pay cuts for some assistant coaches and possible staff reductions.

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