Stakes, tension rise as NFL labor deadline nears
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 11:42 PM
WASHINGTON -- Rhetoric rose while the clock ticked down in the NFL's labor talks Thursday, with the league and players' union trading back-and-forth barbs a day before the twice-extended collective bargaining agreement expires.
With the two sides far apart on key economic issues, nine of the 10 members of the owners' labor committee joined NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at the office of the federal mediator overseeing the negotiations - but, the union complained, none of the owners met with any of the players on hand.
Even though there were small-group talks between NFL and union representatives on the 15th day of mediation, no one gave any indication that progress was made. Indeed, the loudest words came in the evening, sparked by comments from league general counsel and lead negotiator Jeff Pash.
"Things can come together quickly. Things can fall apart quickly," Pash said when the NFL negotiating team left for the day. "I've said it many times: If both sides have an equal commitment to getting this deal done, it will get done. I don't know if both sides have an equal commitment. ... Obviously, we have the commitment."
When that was relayed to NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah, he responded with an e-mail to The Associated Press that said: "Jeff Pash was part of an executive team that sold the networks a $4 billion ticket to a game they knew wouldn't be played. The only thing they've been committed to is a lockout."
That is a reference to a court ruling last week, when the federal judge overseeing NFL labor matters sided with players in their case accusing owners of improperly negotiating TV deals to prepare for a work stoppage.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith then went back to the mediator's office to respond to Pash's statement himself.
"We have been committed to this process. But for anyone to stand and turn to the American people and say they question that?" Smith said. "Look, I understand that there's probably some things Jeff Pash just has to say, but this is the truth: We know that as early as March of 2009 ... the National Football League engaged in a strategy to get $4 billion of television money ... even if the games weren't played."
Joining in, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello tweeted: "When is union going to respond to our 150 pages of draft CBA provisions that they received eight days ago. Waiting."
The CBA originally was supposed to expire last week. The sides agreed to push that deadline to Friday; if a deal isn't reached, there could be another extension.
What certainly sounded more likely, given Thursday's tone, was that talks could break off, leading to a lockout by owners or decertification by the union, followed by antitrust lawsuits by players - actions that could threaten the 2011 season.
The NFL hasn't lost games to a work stoppage since 1987, when a strike shortened the season and some games included nonunion replacement players. The foundation of the current CBA was reached in 1993 by then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and union chief Gene Upshaw. It has been extended five times as annual revenues soared above $9 billion, the league expanded to 32 teams, and new stadiums were built.