SBJ/March 13 - 19, 2006/This Weeks News

Winding road to NFL labor peace

When NFL union leader Gene Upshaw sat down with four associates for dinner a little more than a week ago, the first thing he did was propose a toast to an NFL season without a salary cap.

Gene Upshaw
It was Sunday night, March 4. Upshaw, head of the NFL players union, had given up hope of reaching a new labor deal with the NFL’s owners. That meant that in 2007, the last year of the current deal, NFL players would be able to sign contracts with no salary restrictions.

After dinner ended, though, when Upshaw left the restaurant, he found a message on his BlackBerry device from NFL Executive Vice President and COO Roger Goodell. “Where are you?” it said.

The labor talks suddenly had new life.

Upshaw, who by that time was rarely answering his phone because of the volume of calls, would joke later that this collective-bargaining deal was “the first one done by blackberry.”

In the end, Upshaw said he was at peace with the deal that was struck because he felt that he did everything he could do for the players. “I will be gone before this deal is up,” Upshaw said, referring to the fact that he is 60, and that the NFLPA’s mandatory retirement age is 65.

Here, based on interviews with Upshaw and other union sources, as well as reporting from various league meetings, is the story of the last week of Gene Upshaw’s final labor deal.

Thursday, March 2
On the morning of the day before the new league year and the start of free agency, Tagliabue called an emergency meeting of owners in New York.

Kessler, a veteran of CBA talks, was the most
excitable union negotiator, Upshaw said.
Just before that meeting began at 8:30 a.m., Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney called Upshaw’s office in Washington, D.C. Rooney asked Upshaw how fast he could get to New York. Upshaw said that he could get there by early afternoon if he caught the next shuttle.

The owners were meeting at the Grand Hyatt Hotel next to Grand Central Station. Rooney told Upshaw the meeting would take only about 10 minutes, though most of the reporters standing outside the hotel figured that, with all the issues the owners were trying to address, they would be in there all day.

Instead, the session ended after just 57 minutes, when Tagliabue, wearing a grim expression, announced that the owners had voted unanimously to cut off talks with the players. He then turned out his heel and walked out of the press conference without taking questions.

Upshaw said that, from what he knows, the real meeting did, in fact, last only as long as Rooney had predicted — 10 minutes. “They bullshitted around to make it seem longer than that,” Upshaw said.

The real meeting came later that day, when Rooney and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who had stayed in New York while other owners fled an approaching snowstorm, joined a group of league negotiators to meet with Upshaw’s team. They held the talks at 3 p.m. at the offices of Weil Gotshal & Manges on Fifth Avenue. That’s the firm of NFLPA outside counsel James Quinn.

“No one knew,” Upshaw said, adding that the meeting was purposely held away from NFL headquarters to avoid ESPN television cameras, which had been staking out the league’s Park Avenue offices.

Upshaw was pleasantly surprised at the meeting.

“They said there was a lot of confusion, and that we were basically only two [percentage] points apart,” he said. “We were not four points apart, and all we had to do was bring that [gap] together.”

Upshaw agreed to extend the start of the new league year and the free agency deadline 72 hours, to Sunday night.

“We were making some progress,” he said.

Friday, March 3
The two sides agreed to meet again, at Weil Gotshal’s offices. Jeffrey Kessler, another of the league’s top outside labor lawyers and a member of the firm Dewey Ballantine, had taken the red-eye from Los Angeles the night before.

The union’s Berthelsen said meetings remained
civil, no matter how far the sides were apart.
Talks started around 11 a.m., but they started badly. The owners had suddenly reversed course.

“They went back to where they were before,” Upshaw said. “We were at one point when we started talking on Thursday, and when we started meeting again, they were back to their old position.”

Though talks that day lasted until about 5 p.m., in the end, neither side would budge, and Upshaw was unhappy at what he saw as waffling from the league.

“We are not going to do that,” he told league negotiators. “We are not going there.”

Saturday, March 4
Another try, this time again at the Weil Gotshal offices on Fifth Avenue. The owners offered a few more proposals.

It is normal during collective-bargaining negotiations for the two sides to talk for 20 minutes or so, then break apart and conference among themselves.

During this meeting, though, “We did that about every five minutes,” Upshaw said.

The NFL officials, represented by Tagliabue and Goodell as lead negotiators, had to constantly update owners on where talks were going, leading union officials to believe that the league kept changing positions in part because its negotiators were getting different instructions from different owners.

Despite the inconsistent proposals, the discussions were cordial, said Richard Berthelsen, NFLPA general counsel.

“People listen and react,” he said. “There are no invectives. Nobody is screaming at each other. It is a very gentlemanly atmosphere and very professional.”

Upshaw said the only union negotiator who “gets all excited about all this is Kessler,” who has represented a number of sports unions in CBA talks, including the National Basketball Players Association in its labor deal last year.

“He got so excited one day I said, ‘Jeff, calm down,’” said Upshaw. “‘Let them finish. It’s OK.’”

But Kessler’s response was, “It’s a waste of time.”

Upshaw eventually agreed, and he and Berthelsen flew back to Washington. Quinn flew to Florida, as he had to be in court on another case there on Monday morning. Kessler, in New York, agreed to an interview, telling ESPN that the labor talks were “dead as a doornail.”

At 8:12 p.m., Goodell sent Upshaw, then at the NFLPA’s D.C. headquarters, a fax outlining a new proposal.

“He wanted to know if we could meet on Sunday,” said Upshaw, who answered that he would meet with the league at Kessler’s office.

“Nobody would find us there,” he said.

Sunday, March 5
Upshaw and Berthelsen took an 8 a.m. flight, then met the NFL negotiators in the offices of Dewey Ballantine on The Avenue of the Americas, between 52nd and 53rd streets.

Despite the proposal he had received the night before, what Upshaw said he heard that morning was the same old thing.

“What they did is, they would say enough to get us back [to the table], and then they would retreat to their old, previous position,” Upshaw said.

Kessler said of that day’s meetings, “We decided to give it one last try. We negotiated all day, and it became clear that they were completely dysfunctional.”

NFL union chief Gene Upshaw was on a flight to
Maui when NFL owners voted on a new CBA.
Here's his e-mail describing
how he heard the news:
The NFL, Kessler said, was making new offers, but overall was retreating, rather than advancing toward the players’ position.

“We told them what our bottom line was,” said Kessler, “and we were done.”

By Sunday afternoon, an ESPN camera crew had, in fact, tracked down the negotiators and was there when the talks broke off.

“I talked to ESPN that night,” Upshaw said. “I tried to send a message to our people that we can’t come back [to them] with a proposal like this one.”

That’s when the NFLPA group — Upshaw, Berthelsen, Kessler, NFLPA assistant executive director Doug Allen and Dewey Ballantine partner David Feher — went to dinner, at 8 p.m., at Ben Benson’s Steakhouse on West 52nd Street.

In the last three days, about all the negotiators had had to eat was turkey, pastrami and ham sandwiches, washed down with lots of coffee.

“I didn’t want to eat another sandwich,” said Upshaw, a former Oakland Raiders offensive guard and member of the NFL Hall of Fame. “I was tired of eating sandwiches in conference rooms.”During the dinner, which Upshaw started with his toast to an uncapped year, the union group was so sure the labor deal was dead that none of them bothered to check messages. They didn’t even realize that cell phone and BlackBerry reception was essentially non-existent in their corner of the restaurant.

As soon as they finished, though, and got back out on the street, “My phone and my BlackBerry went off,” Upshaw said.

The BlackBerry message was from Goodell. “Where are you?” it said. “You need to call Paul.”

When Upshaw called Tagliabue, the commissioner said he had just meet with the NFL’s labor committee.

Tagliabue asked if the deadline could be moved again. Upshaw at first refused, then made this concession: “I said, ‘There is only one way to get the deadline moved. You would have to take my proposal to Dallas to the owners. They have to vote on it up and down.’”

Tagliabue agreed.

Monday, March 6
At 10 a.m., Upshaw met with Tagliabue and other league officials at Dewey Ballantine, but only to help prepare the term sheet that represented the union’s final offer to the league, including the condition that more revenue must be shared among the teams. The meeting, over bagels and coffee, lasted about two hours.

Upshaw left New York on Monday night with plans to spend the next day preparing for a Wednesday flight to Hawaii, where the union was holding its annual meeting. Goodell tried to get him to change his plans.

“He said, ‘You can’t leave Wednesday. We can’t contact you,’” Upshaw said. “I said, ‘Roger, there is nothing to contact me on.’”

Tuesday, March 7
In the morning, Rooney called, “in the same kind of panic” as Goodell, Upshaw said. “He said, ‘I might need to talk to you.’ I said, ‘Dan, there is no need to talk to me.’”

Rooney and most of the other owners gathered that afternoon at the Grand Hyatt hotel at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. They started meeting at about 3 p.m. ET. Six owners were missing: Seattle’s Paul Allen and Chicago’s Virginia McCaskey, who rarely attend meetings; Detroit’s Bill Ford, who had a Ford Motor Co. board meeting; Baltimore’s Steve Bisciotti, who had a prior commitment; Tennessee’s Bud Adams, for reasons unknown, and most surprising considering his influence in the league, New England’s Robert Kraft, who was in Israel.

That evening, responding to a query about whether anything had changed, Upshaw wrote in an e-mail, “I am home trying to pack. They will not leave me alone.”

At 11:15 ET that night, after the owners ended their first day of meetings with no resolution, owners and executives from some of the league’s high-revenue teams — the Jets, Eagles, Texans, Cowboys, Browns, Redskins and Patriots — gathered in the hotel bar to discuss the day’s events. Given that the revenue sharing debate had often been framed as a struggle between the league’s haves and have-nots, it seemed to portend strong arguments for the next day’s session.

Wednesday, March 8
True to his word to the owners, Upshaw, with Berthelsen, left Washington on a 9:25 a.m. ET flight for Los Angeles. His schedule had him traveling all day, including a flight to Hawaii that would last through the 9 p.m. ET deadline for the owners to make a decision.

The owners, meanwhile, were meeting again in Dallas. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones seemed to be a barometer for how things were going in the hotel conference room. As he went in and out of the meeting room during the day, he was at times cheerful, and at times almost morose.

After expressing optimism early in the day, he came out shortly before noon and announced that talks had taken “a step back.”

During a stopover in Los Angeles, at about 5 p.m. ET, Upshaw commented in an e-mail on news that the owners would not vote until right before the deadline. “That is why we have a deadline,” he wrote. “They will drag it out.”

The owners finally hammered out a revenue-sharing resolution, something to vote on at last, at 8 p.m. ET. Owners and top team executives gathered in little knots outside the meeting room, furiously working through the numbers to figure out how much their team would be hurt, or helped, by the proposal. Jones conferred with his sons, Stephen and Jerry Jr. Tagliabue wasn’t in evidence, and word spread through the room that he was behind closed doors twisting arms.

At 8:36 p.m. ET, the owners announced that they had approved a revenue-sharing deal and a six-year collective-bargaining agreement.

More than two hours later, at about 10 p.m. ET, with his plane approaching Maui, Upshaw couldn’t wait any longer. He turned on his BlackBerry.

“Thousands of emails came thru,” Upshaw wrote in an e-mail. “I just turned to Richard and said, ‘We have a deal.’ Everyone on the plane congratulated me on the deal. It felt great.”

The nine who crafted the revenue sharing formula
Team Dealmaker Position
Blank Bowlen Cass
Johnson Jones Kraft
Mara Richardson Rooney
New York Jets Woody Johnson Owner
New England Patriots Jonathan Kraft Vice chairman and president
Baltimore Ravens Dick Cass President
Pittsburgh Steelers Art Rooney President
Atlanta Falcons Arthur Blank Owner
Carolina Panthers Jerry Richardson Owner
Dallas Cowboys Jerry Jones Owner
New York Giants John Mara Executive vice president
Denver Broncos Pat Bowlen Owner
Source: NFL

Daniel Kaplan contributed to this report.

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