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Absent a "last-minute agreement that no one around football expects," the NFLPA "plans to decertify by Thursday in an effort to pre-empt an owners-generated lockout," according to sources cited by Mortensen & Schefter of ESPN.com. The NFL CBA states that the union "in effect must wait six months to decertify if it does it after" the CBA expires, which will occur at 11:59pm ET Thursday. If the union decertifies, it is "no longer a union, and the National Labor Relations Board loses its hold over the NFLPA." The owners are "expected to claim the decertification is a sham and challenge it in the NLRB." The union "already has obtained unanimous approval from players across the league to decertify, a process it undertook throughout last season and the union's executive committee reaffirmed that vote this past Tuesday to empower NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith to take this action." The primary reason for decertification "would be to file for an injunction that, if granted, would prevent the owners from locking out the players" (ESPN.com, 2/28). In Boston, Greg Bedard reported decertification likely is "part of a strategy to get the NFL to budge off its economic demands before the CBA expires." A union source said that decertification "would only be used if there was no progress on the CBA and a lockout by the owners appeared certain" (BOSTON GLOBE, 2/27). FOXSPORTS.com's Alex Marvez noted decertification is "needed to ensure any CBA-related player lawsuits against the league would be heard under the jurisdiction of U.S. District Judge David Doty, who has long held jurisdiction over CBA legal decisions." That is a power that the NFL "would like to see end because of what the league has privately claimed is a pro-NFLPA stance by Doty" (FOXSPORTS.com, 2/27). In N.Y., Ralph Vacchiano wrote threatening to decertify is a "powerful weapon since Smith knows the NFLPA's one big victory over the NFL came after the union decertified in 1989" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 2/27).
TAKE IT TO THE COURTS: YAHOO SPORTS' Jason Cole reported the NFLPA has approached several players "to become named plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the league if the union decertifies before the Thursday deadline." Sources said that the union has approached players including Colts QB Peyton Manning, Saints QB Drew Brees, Patriots QB Tom Brady and Patriots G Logan Mankins, among others. Frank Bauer, who reps Mankins, said, "We're considering it." Cole wrote the "presence of players such as Manning, Brady and Brees, who is a member of the union's executive committee, is critical to putting pressure on the league and maintaining support for the union's cause." One player agent said, "The quarterbacks are crucial to this. The reason is that those guys are normally much more on management's side of things because they are so close to the coaches and the owners. For guys like Manning and Brees to step out and put their names on a lawsuit would be really important, especially for the rest of the rank-and-file of the league. The quarterbacks drive the league. The owners know that" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 2/25).
TALKS SET TO RESUME: In DC, Mark Maske noted negotiators for the NFL and the players' union are scheduled to meet at the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service in DC tomorrow, and "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." FMCS Dir George Cohen will "continue to oversee the talks when they resume Tuesday." NFL owners are "scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday at a hotel near Dulles Airport," and 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 toward expenses before the players' portion of revenues would be calculated under a salary cap." If there is a lockout, the free agent market "wouldn't open as scheduled Friday," and "all free agent signings and trades would be put on hold." Coaches "wouldn't be permitted to have contact with players," and the league's drug-testing program for players "wouldn't be in effect" (WASHINGTON POST, 2/27).
NO END IN SIGHT: Smith met with player agents at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis on Friday, and in N.Y., Judy Battista cited several agents as saying that they expect the two sides to "agree to extend the deadline to continue negotiations." One agent who was present at the meeting said that he "sensed no urgency on either side to strike a deal now" (N.Y. TIMES, 2/26). The N.Y. DAILY NEWS' Vacchiano wrote the "general consensus of agents as they escaped the day-long meeting" seemed to be that a "lockout is coming, and it could be long." Smith "gave them few specifics on the mediated talks with the NFL, which continue in Washington on Tuesday, but most got the feeling the two sides were very far apart" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 2/27). SI.com's Don Banks wrote, "I'm convinced it's going to be a long standoff, after hearing a veteran agent say that ... Smith on Friday reported no progress on the three main issues that separate the two sides: 1) The size of the revenue split between players and owners, 2) the 18-game schedule debate, and 3) institution of a rookie wage scale." Banks added, "While any time spent with the two sides talking to one another directly is a positive, very little of consequence happened in the mediation sessions, and I wouldn't be holding my breath for progress when the union and the league reconvene" (SI.com, 2/25). SI.com's Peter King wrote after "talking to club officials, coaches, a couple of agents and some players" at the NFL Combine, "I hear a lot more pessimism than optimism." King: "This much is clear from taking the temperature of football people here: I expect this job action to last well into the summer" (SI.com, 2/25). Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom said if they go past this week's deadline and the NFLPA "decertifies, then it's a game of chicken until September when you start missing games" ("The Sports Reporters," ESPN, 2/27).
WHO'S GOING TO BLINK FIRST? Indiana Univ. School of Law Dean Gary Roberts said neither Smith nor NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell "can afford politically to blink first." Roberts: "Both Goodell and Smith got their jobs because they appeal to the hard-line elements among them. They can't afford even the perception that they're soft or making the big concessions." Roberts added that "pressure is on Goodell" because the owners feel former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue "'gave away the store' when the current CBA was reached in 2006." Roberts added that Smith also is "in a difficult position, having been an NFL outsider until replacing" late NFLPA Exec Dir Gene Upshaw in '09 (Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE, 2/27). In Detroit, Jerry Green wrote, "If there is a lockout ... the players would be the side more economically damaged. Roster bonus payments and health insurance would be aborted; workout rooms would be shuttered. ... This is a shootout that has much greater impact on the players than the owners. They have limited careers and in too many cases limited lifetimes" (DETROIT NEWS, 2/26). U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Friday, "Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that the only way to sort out this stalemate is for the owners and the league to answer the biggest sticking point: money. What I'd like to see from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners is a simple display of good faith: Show the union your books. Don't keep secrets. If there are financial pressures that keep you from agreeing to the revenue-sharing plan proposed by the players, let's see the proof" (AP, 2/25).
HANDS OFF: In Charlotte, Darin Gantt reported the message NFL officials have sent their employees regarding how things will be handled during a potential lockout is "loud and clear -- hands off." An agent who represents a number of assistant coaches said that his clients "were told that contact with players or their agents during a potential lockout would be grounds for firing with cause -- meaning remaining years and money owed on contracts would be voided." The agent: "They're not joking around about this." An agent who attended Friday's meeting with Smith said that the union leader "cautioned that 'pro day' workouts by college players could ... be exempt, using the league's interpretation of the rules" (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 2/26).
NFLPA Exec Dir DeMaurice Smith Friday did not reveal any details on the ongoing NFL CBA talks, but told NFL player agents at a large union meeting in Indianapolis to prepare for an NFL lockout, sources said. "His position is that we want a deal and the NFL isn't moving and only says, 'No!'" said one source at the meeting. Other sources said Smith told agents he would "punt" on any questions about the ongoing federal mediation in the CBA talks with the NFL that will continue tomorrow in DC. The CBA expires on Friday. Sources also said Smith told agents what rules will apply to contact between the NFL and players when the work stoppage begins. These sources asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on union business. Some agents at the meeting in downtown Indianapolis, where the NFL Combine is being held, did talk to the national sports media gathered in the hallways. Powerful agents Tom Condon, Ben Dogra, Drew Rosenhaus and Joel Segal told the assembled press they are solidly behind Smith and the NFLPA. "De Smith is in command -- the NFLPA leadership has a great plan if there is a lockout and they are prepared for it," Rosenhaus said. "I feel good about the NFLPA's strategy. Listening to De and the NFLPA instills confidence that we are ready for whatever the future holds and we will be successful in the end." The NFLPA had planned to hold a smaller meeting of influential agents last Thursday, but canceled it because of the ongoing labor talks (Liz Mullen, SportsBusiness Journal). Rosenhaus added, "There's unity among the agents (and) certainly among the players. There's great confidence in the leadership. There's a tremendous plan should there be a lockout" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 2/26). Agent Mark Slough: "This is not going to be resolved soon, and the agent community is solidly behind De. I left feeling more confident in our union leadership. The owners are trying to send us back to pre-1987 levels" (PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS, 2/26).
OUT OF THE LOOP? YAHOO SPORTS' Jason Cole reported a "number of player reps now fear that the weakest link to how the union handles the labor battle with owners is the agent community itself." A "half-dozen" agents estimated that "perhaps as few as 5 percent of the almost 1,000 agents in attendance Friday appeared capable of explaining the complex issues to the players they represent." One agent: "It was scary how little some of the agents knew about what's going on and what's about to happen." Cole wrote if the NFL as expected votes Thursday "to lock out the players and the union decertifies when the sides fail to reach a new CBA extension, the failure of agents to adequately understand the issues at hand could play a role in the leverage game between the league and the union." One agent said, "The problem you're going to have is that instead of calming the players down, you're going to have a lot of agents panicking" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 2/27).
PLAYING NEW ROLES: The AP's Michael Marot reported agents are "now playing a new role for their clients" due to the potential lockout. Dogra said, "We're advising players on COBRA insurance to anything that involves finances to the football side of it." Most agents are "now talking frequently about COBRA coverage, which one agent estimates will cost players $800 to $900 per month to cover their families," and some are "advising clients to take out additional medical policies or disability insurance." Agent Brian Mackler said that "most of his clients now have policies with Lloyds of London, and he's reminding those who are 26 years old or younger that the new federal health care law allows them to sign up on their parents' medical plans, too" (AP, 2/26).
As expected, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig on Saturday named Joe Torre as the league's new Exec VP/Baseball Operations, completing a long transition for the department. Torre will oversee all on-field matters, including umpiring, rules and discipline and act as a liaison to the 30 GMs, and as a result, will become one of the major public faces for MLB. The four-time World Series champion takes over for MLB Exec VP/Administration John McHale, who had been running the department on an interim basis since last June after fellow league Exec VP Jimmie Lee Solomon was reassigned to a baseball development role. McHale will now return to his prior role. "This is a very critical appointment," said Selig, who made the announcement at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the new Spring Training complex for the Rockies and D'Backs in Scottsdale. "As I thought about this a lot over the past year, he's really uniquely suited for this position." Torre will maintain his L.A. residence, but spend "significant" time at MLB's N.Y. headquarters, particularly early on. "I retired from managing ... but I still have the energy to work. Really, baseball has been a huge part of my life. I just would like to do something significant, and this fits the bill. No question about it." Torre will also retain his role on Selig's Special Committee for On-Field Matters. Frank Robinson, a longtime ally of Selig's, will revert to his prior role as a special advisor to the commissioner after working for McHale as Senior VP/Baseball Operations (Eric Fisher, SportsBusiness Journal). On Long Island, Ken Davidoff reported Torre will earn a $2M salary from MLB and "be responsible for player discipline for on-field issues, umpiring and other on-field operations." Torre brings "credibility and far more star power than to which the post is accustomed" (NEWSDAY, 2/27).
RIGHT MAN FOR THE JOB: YAHOO SPORTS' Steve Henson wrote under the header, "Torre's Temperament Is Ideal For Key MLB Post." Throughout the league, "decisions will gain the benefit of the doubt because Joe Torre will have made them." Henson: "When discipline is meted out, Torre will explain why. If umpires’ hubris needs reining in, Torre will get it done without diminishing their authority. If replay is expanded or a crackdown on beanball retaliation becomes necessary, Torre will make the announcement and take the questions in measured, congenial tones, leaving the impression that baseball knows what it is doing" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 2/27).
MLB and MLBPA officials soon "will sit down together and begin talks" on a new CBA, and the "principal issues -- revenue sharing, cost containment in the draft -- are a prelude to bigger ones down the road, specifically: Schedule inequities, the seemingly hopeless stadium situations in Tampa Bay and Oakland, the fate of the designated hitter and Bud Selig's longtime musing, geographic re-alignment," according to Bill Madden of the N.Y. DAILY NEWS. While "none of those latter issues is on the labor agenda, people all over baseball are talking about them." Orioles manager Buck Showalter said that he "stays up nights configuring Realignment scenarios that would solve a lot of baseball's problems." Showalter was not specific about contraction, but Madden wrote there is a "growing sentiment for it throughout baseball, especially in regard to the Rays and A's." At least three baseball execs "targeted those two teams as the most logical ones for extinction." One said, "It's pretty clear that neither of those teams can continue to operate in those facilities." Another exec said, "How much longer can you expect all the other teams to subsidize two teams, in futile situations, with revenue sharing to keep them afloat?" A source indicated that Rays Owner Stuart Sternberg and A's Owner Lew Wolff have told MLB Commissioner Bud Selig that they are "not prepared to continue operating under the present circumstances." Madden noted MLB "can unilaterally contract teams but must collectively bargain the effects of contraction with the union -- specifically the loss of those 50 jobs and what becomes of those players" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 2/27).
NO MAJOR OBSTACLES: On Long Island, Erik Boland reported MLBPA Exec Dir Michael Weiner "doesn't see any major obstacles in the way" of a new CBA, but he has been with the union "for more than 20 years, so he knows things can change quickly." Weiner: "I'm optimistic that the lines of communication are open. ... We don't take anything for granted." Boland noted the MLB CBA is "up at the end of December and talks, though nothing substantial, have begun." Weiner "believes those discussions will begin 'in earnest' once the season starts." Everything from "baseball's drug-testing policy to the international draft to banning smokeless chewing tobacco will be on the table." Weiner said of the talks, "I don't think it's going to be status quo, but it doesn't appear that anybody's looking to reinvent the wheel" (NEWSDAY, 2/27). In Newark, Marc Carig noted the MLB smokeless tobacco ban being pushed by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) "will be discussed during talks to shape a collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expires in December." But Weiner Saturday said a move toward a ban is "difficult for a lot of reasons." Weiner: "The health risks are clear, the concern that use by kids is clear. But it's also a legal substance. We're talking about adults, we're not talking about cigarette smoke where there's a secondary health risk" (Newark STAR-LEDGER, 2/27).
AIRING THEIR DIRTY LAUNDRY: In Chicago, Phil Rogers wrote for "one of the few times in the last decade," MLB team officials recently "went public with wildly varying takes on the economic times -- showing a distinct absence of lockstep as negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement begin." White Sox Senior VP & GM Ken Williams and Yankees co-Chair & General Partner Hank Steinbrenner "dropped the kind of verbal bombs that were common in baseball's bad, old days of labor relations." Williams said that MLB "needs to do more to help smaller markets, calling for a salary cap to even the playing field." He added that "rising salaries, climbing ticket prices and the need to help low-revenue teams are such serious problems that baseball has reached critical mass." Meanwhile, Steinbrenner made a "thinly veiled reference to the elimination of weak franchises." The comments "suggest a massive divide between the Yankees and most of the other 29 teams entering the last season" of the current CBA, and the "economic tension between the Yankees and their competition suggests Selig will have to work to keep the union from reverting to the divide-and-conquer playbook left over from" former MLBPA Exec Dirs Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 2/27). In Boston, Nick Cafardo noted Yankees and Red Sox officials last week both "mentioned revenue sharing," and "on this topic, the two stand united." Steinbrenner called the $130M the Yankees contributed to revenue sharing "socialism." Red Sox President & CEO Larry Lucchino noted his team contributed about $86M to revenue sharing. Cafardo wrote it "has to frost the big-market owners when the Royals get revenue-sharing money yet are owned by" David Glass, "one of the richest men in America." Yet "nobody wants a salary cap." The MLBPA "would never allow a salary cap, anyway," so the "solution may be what Steinbrenner suggests: If you can't run your business well enough, you shouldn't have a business" (BOSTON GLOBE, 2/27).
IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard on Friday said that it "will take being a legend for a former IndyCar driver to be eligible" for the $5M challenge in October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Bernard said that the "key to making the bonus available ... is showcasing the Izod IndyCar Series to drivers in other motor sports genres, and vice versa." He added that he has "limited the opportunities to five because that's how many IndyCar teams he thinks could provide an extra car capable of winning the season-ending Oct. 16 race" (INDIANAPOLIS STAR, 2/26). NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya, an Indy 500 winner, said, "It's just impossible logistics-wise." He added, "If you were really going to try and win the $5 million, you would have to get all the practices down and do it right. ... I think a lot of people are going to going ohhh, but being realistic it’s impossible. Are you going to show up on Sunday and race without practice and hope for the best? Who the heck is going to win that?” (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 2/26).
READY OR NOT ... In Phoenix, Paola Boivin notes NASCAR has been "quick to market" Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne. Four hours before yesterday's Sprint Cup Series Subway Fresh Fit 500, Bayne "took Golden Globe nominee Emmy Rossum, who sang the national anthem, for a couple of fast laps around the track." Boivin writes, "It's impressive what Bayne is willing to do before competition. Most pitchers in Major League Baseball won't do interviews on days they start. NFL players are unavailable before games" (ARIZONA REPUBLIC, 2/28).
REMEMBER THE TITAN: In Nashville, Jim Wyatt reports Jeff Fisher has "accepted the NFL's invitation to assist the competition committee as a consultant." Fisher, who stepped down as Titans coach this offseason, previously served as co-Chair of the committee alongside Falcons President Rich McKay. Fisher said that he "would rejoin the committee as a non-voting member at next month's meeting in Florida." NFL Senior VP/PR Greg Aiello said Fisher might serve as consultant for "some period of time" (Nashville TENNESSEAN, 2/28).
BREAK POINT? In a Q&A with the N.Y. TIMES' Joe Brescia, U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier spoke about tennis' popularity in the U.S. and said, "Tennis chose international popularity over U.S. popularity many years ago when the circuit moved more U.S.-based pro events offshore. When the best players participate on U.S. soil four times a year, it’s unlikely to see growth in TV ratings, which is the metric most use to judge the game’s relative popularity. Imagine how the PGA Tour would fare, relatively speaking, if there were only four U.S.-based events each year which attracted the game’s best." But he added, "From a participation standpoint, tennis is at its highest levels in 25 years in the U.S., which is very encouraging" (N.Y. TIMES, 2/27).