SBJ/Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2011/Opinion

Lack of trust is largest obstacle for NFL, union

Abe Madkour
When we sat down to map out our Super Bowl issue months ago, one theme quickly emerged: Sunday will be the last NFL game until either a new collective-bargaining agreement is struck or new work rules imposed. If there is a delay at all in a 2011 regular season, what would it mean for the businesses around professional football?

We’ve looked at it from the angles — from a league and team perspective, how it affects corporate and media partners, as well as filling stadium dates. (If you haven’t yet, please read NFL veteran Jim Steeg’s insightful piece about what teams must focus on during any work stoppage, on Page 17). We also asked a number of business executives for their unvarnished prediction about how next season will unfold. The skinny from them is not encouraging. A majority sees the season starting late, with a shortened schedule and possibly pushing the Super Bowl deeper into February.

After getting a sense of the pace of talks and reading much of the rhetoric, who can blame them? It’s been difficult to get a read of how these negotiations have — and will — play out, even among the key leaders. For every time someone like Robert Kraft expresses optimism, Jerry Richardson acknowledges that it’s “baffling” no progress is being made.

One must take into account positioning and posturing as opposed to reality. Two recent remarks stood out, and neither in a positive way. One was when Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney returned from Ireland and acknowledged that there could be actual “dislike” between management and the union leadership. The longtime NFL leader put new cards on the table, and he did so publicly. Then, union leader DeMaurice Smith was quoted in The New York Times as comparing the negotiations to “war,” and added, “Nobody negotiates their way to strength. Nobody talks their way to a good deal.”

The main impediment to any deal is not revenue sharing or stadium credits, an 18-game schedule or a rookie wage scale. To me, it’s clearly the personalities dropped into a sensitive bargaining process. Roger Goodell (and company) and DeMaurice Smith (and his inner circle) haven’t danced before. There is no rhythm, just awkwardness and uncomfortable posturing that demonstrates a lack of trust. Trust can — and should — take time to develop. But that inability to trust is what Rooney is referring to, and it was surprising to hear it come out in such an overt way.

Many still talk about Smith’s performance at last year’s union news conference at the Super Bowl, which surprised ownership with its dramatic tone. Smith’s tenor this week in Dallas will be one of the most scrutinized elements in a Super Bowl week clouded by the uncertainty over the game’s future. Ownership wants to “take its league back,” and there are few signs of fissures in their solidarity. There will be no “bad deal” made by them this time. Players seem to sense this and seem willing to spar until they begin missing checks in September. But most importantly, the key negotiators have to move past any personality conflicts, and until we see a change in the dynamic relationship between the sides — and until we see both sides willing to negotiate and find a deal — it’s hard to have any optimism that a deal gets done any time before Labor Day.

Even then, too much time will have been wasted and too much lost.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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