SBJ/Feb. 7-13, 2011/Labor and Agents

Effects of dissenting comments tough to gauge, experts say

Liz Mullen
For about two years now, public statements have been coming out of both NFL owners meetings and the NFL Players Association about how the owners on one hand and the players on the other have never been more unified.

But last month, a high-profile player and an NFL owner broke ranks, so to speak, when each made public statements critical of his side’s bargaining positions.

New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie launched a public attack against the NFLPA, cursing both union leaders and the leaders of the league and expressing impatience a deal was not done. “To tell you the truth, they need to get their damn minds together and get this [expletive] done,” Cromartie said.

Also speaking out last month was Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney. Rooney, now occupied as the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, is not involved in collective-bargaining negotiations but has been engaged in such talks in the past. “The negotiators should get it together,” Rooney said.

He added that he was against one of the key planks in the NFL owners’ labor proposal: expanding the NFL season to 18 games. “I would rather not have the money,” Rooney said. 

But what impact do Rooney’s and Cromartie’s comments have on negotiations for a new deal? According to labor experts, that all depends on whether they are lone voices or part of larger dissident factions within the owners’ and players’ groups.

“Unification in a labor dispute is sacrosanct,” said Ian Pulver, an NHL agent who went through two lockouts and a strike as associate counsel to the NHL Players’ Association under Bob Goodenow. “Management will revel in the comments of the players who speak out against their own union. Players who challenge their own union publicly are inflicting immeasurable damage and only making the job of the NFLPA executives harder to get a deal done.”

Pulver added that the same can be said for owners who speak out against the league’s stated positions and leaders.

He said it is easier for leagues to keep a lid on dissent than it is for sports unions. “The NFLPA has to provide information to 1,900 players, and the NFL only has to make a conference call with 32 lines, so it’s a lot easier for the commissioner to control or have a stronger sphere over what the owners say,” Pulver said.

It is not known whether Rooney, with his comments, violated the NFL’s stated gag order on public discussion of labor matters. Greg Aiello, NFL senior vice president of communications, declined to comment when asked whether Rooney was speaking for the NFL or whether he was fined.

Said Steelers spokesman Dave Lockett, “Our policy is that we do not comment on fines. We leave that to the NFL.”

Longtime MLB Players Association executive Gene Orza said the appearance of disunity within one side or the other at the bargaining table can potentially affect negotiations.

“Solidarity is important to give the other side an accurate picture to the degree the other side it is negotiating with will adhere to the positions it is espousing at the table,” said Orza, who this year is retiring as COO of the MLBPA after helping lead that union, widely regarded as the strongest in sports, since 1984.

“A dissident comment is not so much a threat to solidarity but a threat to the accurate assessment of the other side’s commitment to its positions,” Orza said.

Noting Cromartie “is one of 1,900,” Orza said it is not surprising one player would speak out.

“There are always going to be dissidents in any organization who do [speak out] in my experience in sports,” he said. “If management would say ‘Because Cromartie said this, the union is weak,’ I would say it would be a miscalculation.”

“Suppose there are 31 owners who strenuously disagree with Rooney. Then, so what?” Orza said. But, he added, if other owners feel the same, the NFLPA could question the NFL’s ability to adhere to the 18-game proposal.

People who talk about getting a deal done early do not understand the dynamics of collective bargaining, which is that both sides are more likely to make an agreement when they are facing the possibility of economic damage from a lockout, a strike or decertification, Orza said. “When we talk about economic weapons, we mean it.”

“The process is defined to contemplate that deal-making in the very last hours … when they are about to be in pain because of the position they are espousing. Negotiations are a search for the degree to which the other side’s positions are authentic.”

Liz Mullen can be reached at lmullen@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @SBJLizMullen.

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