SBJ/March 20 - 26, 2006/Opinion

Chaos, fear worked in Upshaw’s favor

There’s a good reason why NFL players union chief Gene Upshaw was able to hand NFL owners their heads at the end of the league’s recent collective bargaining talks.

To illustrate, consider these two anecdotes.

On March 4, representatives for both sides met in New York for what was expected to be a fairly typical negotiating session. As our reporter Liz Mullen wrote in last week’s issue, what generally happens in one of these sessions is that the two sides talk for about 20 minutes, followed by a break in which they discuss the latest developments among themselves before talking some more.

This time, though, the league negotiators needed to break about every five minutes, and union officials said they kept returning with new positions.

The union negotiators assumed that this was because their league counterparts were getting conflicting information from the various owners they were talking to during the breaks.

Do we know that was the cause? No. But based on thoroughly dysfunctional behavior we’ve seen from the owners in the last year or so, it seems a safe assumption to make.

Now consider a story told to Mullen by one of her agent sources as she was gathering information for the story.

The agent had just taken a call from a player who asked whether there was any progress on his marketing.

The agent said no, that he was too busy studying what might happen if there was no new collective-bargaining agreement.

The player responded, “Yeah, what’s that all about, anyway?”

Upshaw, a former Oakland offensive lineman who is in the Hall of Fame, was not only a man on a mission (one agent told Mullen that Upshaw was “anchoring against the bull rush”), but he had carte blanche to do as he liked, without fear of being second-guessed by his constituents.

Contrast that with the situation faced by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, whose head must have been spinning trying to keep up with the conflicting demands of 32 owners, many of whom seem to have forgotten the wise decisions made by their predecessors that built the league into America’s sports powerhouse.

Looking now at how the deal came together, it probably should have been obvious that the owners were going to take a beating with a big union stick. The time bomb placed at the end of the last deal — a year with no salary cap — scared the league much more than it did the players, not to mention the shorter term for prorating salaries and the lower salary cap that would have been in place next season.

Don’t feel sorry for the owners, though. Their pockets are still lined with gold.

On the day the deal was finally made, my parents were traveling to visit me and my family. When they arrived, my dad asked me, “Did the owners give in?”

Yes, they did, but only after an impassioned plea from Tagliabue finally opened their eyes to the fact that life with a new deal was infinitely preferable to life without one.

As Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after the final vote, the deal offered by the union was “a mean mother.” (He may also have been describing his feelings about Upshaw.)

Sure, the sour ending to the tug of war between wealthy owners and even wealthier owners may sting a bit now, but as the television money continues to roll in, fans keep filling stadiums and creative owners such as Jones keep coming up with new ways to bring in money, they’ll soon be giving it as little thought as that clueless, but happy, player.

At least until 2011, when the next uncapped year rolls their way.

Ross Nethery is managing editor at SportsBusiness Journal.

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