You may have heard the labor negotiations between the NFL owners and Players Association took a turn for the worse Thursday when both sides walked away from the talks and declined to give much of an explanation.
Reason to worry? Maybe.
Just as likely though, it’s only a negotiation ploy.
Popular opinion among experts with more intimate knowledge of the proceedings than yours truly is that a work stoppage in 2011 is a real possibility for the first time since replacement players stepped in for three games in 1987.
That may be, but you don’t need an inside source to see that a resolution isn’t out of reach and that ultimately, the owners have the power.
In the event of a work stoppage, both sides will lose money. The question then is who can better afford it — the players who cash the massive checks, or the owner who writes them? As Chris Rock once said (paraphrasing here for the sake of obscenity guidelines and AP style), Shaquille O’Neal is rich. The guy who signs his checks is wealthy.
There’s a big difference.
The players are the ones who will be hurting the most if there’s still no football come October.
Regardless of how you feel about Roger Goodell and his plans to take the game global and crack down on helmet-to-helmet hits, the guy isn’t dumb. He’s the head of the most powerful sports league in the U.S. and possibly the world. You don’t earn the seat at the head of that table without understanding the politics of negotiations, and so far, he’s working the players union like Clay Matthews on a practice squad lineman.
He’s made no secret of the league’s and the owners’ primary desires: an 18-game schedule and restructuring rookie salaries. The former has been largely derided by the players, the media and even some fans. The latter seems to make sense to just about everybody. Even if the players union postures itself for a fight on the topic, they’ll cave on it eventually.
In the name of solidarity, the players will argue against the rookie salary cap. Their argument: It’s a dangerous game they make their living in and the shelf life isn’t long for the average NFL player (3 1/2 years, according to the Players Association). The rookie contract is the one chance most of them will have to get paid handsomely for their sacrifices of body, mind and future well-being.
But at the same time, when the league’s most unproven players are also its richest, resentment will fester. That’s not disunity; it’s human nature.
In recent drafts, Chris Long, Jake Long, Glenn Dorsey, Jamarcus Russell and Matthew Stafford have become some of the league’s highest-paid players at their positions without ever taking a snap. Some of them will be worth the investment (both Longs), some will be historic failures (Russell) and for some it’s too early to tell (Dorsey and Stafford).
But if the guy lining up next to them with 10 years of service and 1/3 the salary sees a rookie salary cap as a way to spread the wealth (which to some extent it is), it’s going to be hard to convince him that his missing game checks next fall are worth it.
The guess here is Goodell knows this and he’s taking the necessary steps to make sure the league gets what it wants. By deftly making the 18-game schedule the league’s focal point, he’s executing the equivalent of a boardroom end around. First, talk everywhere to everyone about the benefits of an extended schedule. Then at the last minute, take it off the table and say you’ve made a compromise when you get what you were really after: greater restriction on rookie salaries.
Both sides will tell you there’s more to it than this simplified look, and undoubtedly, there is.
But the crux remains: the owners are negotiating from the position of power. Expect them to get what they want.
Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesbholloway.