SBJ/20090126/This Week's News

No plans for talks as NFLPA narrows its list

With Sunday’s Super Bowl perhaps one of the last to be contested under a system with a salary cap, there are nonetheless no plans to begin talks for a new collective-bargaining agreement, NFL Players Association Acting Executive Director Richard Berthelsen said last week.

Smith

At the same time, the union last week whittled down to at least five the number of candidates to be the executive director who will lead the players at this critical juncture. That group includes outsider candidate DeMaurice Smith, a high-profile Washington, D.C., attorney who was on President Obama’s transition team.

“We have been advised the owners are discussing among themselves, through various committees, what their bargaining stance will be,” Berthelsen said. “We don’t expect to meet with them until they have decided on that bargaining stance.”

NFL owners voted unanimously in May to end the CBA two years early, arguing that the current deal overwhelmingly favors the players. The deal now runs through the end of the 2010 season, with that final campaign having no salary cap.

Since its adoption in 1993, the salary cap has been credited for underpinning the sport’s rapid growth.

“Typically, in collective bargaining, when one side gives notice that they want to re-open or terminate, they are expected to make proposals as to how they want the agreement changed,” Berthelsen said. “The NFL owners have not yet done that with us.”

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in response, “There are two more years to go under the current deal. There is plenty of time to negotiate the next agreement.”

Union officials are convinced the league wants to push talks up to the first hard deadline, which is March 2010. Absent a deal then, the NFL would enter a season without a salary cap. March 2011 would become the next major deadline, with a lockout of the players the most likely scenario at that point if a new labor pact were not struck.

The NFLPA’s outside attorney, Jeffrey Kessler, said the league is using the executive director search as an excuse to delay meeting and instead wants to wait until near the deadline to begin talking in earnest.

“The union was willing to have discussions because the position of players is really going to be the same regardless of who the executive director is,” Kessler said.

Armstrong

Aiello called Kessler’s comment “nonsense.”

“We are ready and eager to meet as soon as possible,” Aiello said. “The NFLPA has not asked for any meetings.”

League sources have said in the past the NFL does not envision serious negotiations beginning until well after a new NFLPA executive director is named. That is slated to occur in March at the NFLPA’s annual meeting in Hawaii.

Last week, the NFLPA narrowed down the list of candidates for a successor to Gene Upshaw, who died Aug. 20 from pancreatic cancer after leading the union for 25 years. Although it was not clear as of last Thursday exactly how many candidates remain, sources said that former players Troy Vincent, Trace Armstrong, Jim Covert and Ben Utt, as well as Smith, a partner with Patton Boggs, are still in the running.

Vincent

It was not clear if former player John Spagnola is still in that mix. Three other candidates, former NFLPA player president  Mike Kenn, athlete attorney David Cornwell and Rod West, the CEO of the gas and electric utility company for New Orleans, confirmed last week they are no longer candidates.

The NFLPA declined to comment on the search. Covert, Utt, Vincent, Armstrong and Spagnola could not immediately be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for Patton Boggs, Smith’s firm, declined to comment.

The list will likely be cut down again such that only three or four candidates would give presentations to the 32 player representatives at the union’s annual meeting in Hawaii. One source said that next cut may occur sometime after the Pro Bowl early next month.

The union’s interim executive director, Berthelsen, is scheduled to speak with the media on Thursday at the union’s annual press conference during Super Bowl week. He is likely to outline the NFLPA’s stance on labor relations and give an update on the search process at that time.

It will be an odd sight for industry veterans to see the dais without the commanding presence of Upshaw, while Berthelsen, the more reserved, longtime general counsel for the group, leads the session. The player president traditionally sits next to the executive director and speaks to the media. Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae is the player president, having taken over last year for Vincent.

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