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

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."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company