NFL poised for a labor confrontation as deadline for lockout looms

By Mark Maske
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.

"Everybody's got to make their own decisions," New York Giants co-owner John Mara said late last week, announcing that his team had no plans for layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts. "We just looked at our organization and made the decisions we're comfortable with."

A lockout is not certain even if there's no settlement between the league and union before the current labor deal expires. Sources said Saturday those on the players' side of the dispute intend, barring progress in negotiations or a late shift in strategy, for the players to decertify the union this week - in effect, putting it out of business as their bargaining agent. That long-anticipated move, reported Saturday by ESPN to be a firm plan for this week for the players' side, would enable players to file antitrust litigation against the owners and, potentially, keep the sport operating while the dispute would play out in court.

The league already made a move to try to complicate any plans for potential union decertification by the players with an unfair labor practice charge to the National Labor Relations Board. The players, in conjunction with decertification, could seek an injunction in court blocking a lockout. Without such an injunction, experts have said the owners could opt to lock out the players if the union is decertified but that would be a risky move under those circumstances because the lockout could be cited in the litigation with potential damages at stake.

The owners, as an alternative to a lockout, could attempt to declare an impasse in negotiations and implement a new system consistent with their last bargaining proposal to the union.

The league has accused the union of failing to bargain in good faith in its charge to the NLRB, contending that the players' side would prefer decertification and antitrust litigation to a settlement. The union, in turn, has challenged the structure of the league's TV contracts, saying they would provide the owners with a $4 billion lockout fund in the fall if there's a work stoppage, in a case now being appealed to a federal judge in Minneapolis. The union also accused teams of improperly colluding last offseason to restrict players' salaries in a separate case now before the league's special master.

That is the backdrop against which bargaining is to resume. Smith, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other negotiators met for seven straight days, through Thursday, before federal mediator George H. Cohen announced that some progress had been made but significant differences remained on the core issues. Cohen is to continue to oversee the talks when they resume Tuesday. The owners are scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday at a hotel near Dulles Airport. The league and union could agree to postpone the 11:59 p.m. deadline Thursday for a new deal if there's progress toward a settlement.

That likely would require movement toward a compromise on the league's proposal for the union to credit the owners with an additional $1 billion annually toward expenses before the players' portion of revenues would be calculated under a salary cap. The league also has proposed extending the regular season to 18 games per team, implementing a rookie wage scale and having players blood-tested for human growth hormone. The union and players say they're content with the terms of the last labor settlement in 2006. Owners called that deal overly favorable to the players and voted in 2008 to exercise an opt-out clause and end it two years early, saying the sport's economic system is broken and needs to be fixed to avoid future financial distress for the league.

Rosenhaus said he's "always optimistic" about the prospects for a last-minute settlement. He said the owners "could hurt their game dramatically by locking their players out, by turning their back on their players when things are going so well."

No one in the sport seems to know exactly how things will play out.

Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said Friday: "We're all in the same spot. . . . We just have to wait and see."

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