NFL labor dispute: Players, owners should learn from baseball

The NFL and the players' union agreed Thursday to a 24-hour extension of the current collective bargaining agreement so that negotiations can continue. (March 3)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 12:50 AM

Opportunities to avert disaster don't come often. Right now, the NFL and its union, by agreeing to a 24-hour extension of their collective bargaining agreement, have taken a step back from the edge. Let's hope it is progress, not just gamesmanship.

As NFL owners and their players find themselves at the first of what may be many brinks in their negotiations, they should learn from baseball's horrid battle of 1994-95. That dispute cascaded into failure, in part because both sides thought they'd win before anything awful happened.

In baseball, as in the current NFL ruckus, the owners spent years laying the groundwork to roll back gains made by the players. In both cases, the players felt sure that labor law was on their side. The owners felt they were getting squeezed and had the financial muscle to change that balance. Both sports were enjoying boom times. That cushion of overconfidence, plus so much money to be split up, proved a perfect prescription for a brawl.

Baseball set deadlines, extended them, then let them pass. Both sides postured, pretended to be negotiating seriously while actually playing for advantage with the public and in the media. There were many baseball days back then that felt a lot like Thursday's NFL talks. Marathon meetings, new last-minute proposals: There's progress! Don't fret.

Yet the 1994 World Series was lost; the aftershocks are still shaking the sport today. Reflect on this cautionary tale, lords of football and players, too.

And reach a deal fast, even if it's far sooner than your original battle plan.

At the moment, both sides are acting serious, but is there really any sense of urgency? The owners have been planning their strategy since 2008, when they reopened the CBA two years early. Aren't they tempted to see how their brilliant strategies will play out? Baseball's owners sure were.

As for players, you already hear quotes about, "Oh, no games until September." When they get their first paychecks. Who cares about missing OTAs? I've covered 10 sports labor battles for The Washington Post, including two NFL lockouts in the 1980s. Ignore history if you want. But the longer you wait, the harder to deal, the easier to go to the mattresses.

There's another side of the coin: our side. Fans of the NFL, even the most ardent, should also learn something from baseball's misery: Don't care. Or care as little as you can. Don't live and die with the latest twist in talks. If the current 24-hour extension leads to progress, that's great. But if this moment of hope leads to nothing, be prepared to mock both sides and, when you can, try to laugh. That's the only pleasure we're going to get.

Because there is one certainty when labor fights get this intense: Neither side cares about you. If you pick a favorite and scream your opinion, then you're probably the sucker. The owners will only listen to those who back them. The same goes for the players.

The sound that really worries them is silence. Try to provide it.

Perhaps the scariest parallel between baseball then and football now is the idea that the healthier the sport, the less likely a disaster. That's backward. Lots of money on the table brings out the worst in people, seldom the best.

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