SBJ/August 1-7, 2011/Opinion

Negotiators deserve credit for compromise

I was wrong.

In January, I predicted that an NFL labor agreement would not get done before Labor Day, and believed the season would start sometime in late September. I believed the lack of trust between the two sides was too great and the new personalities involved in the bargaining process would prevent a swift resolution.

I’ve seen how easy it is to lose games to labor disputes, to let time lapse with little urgency. I’ve seen it beat up negotiators, who removed themselves from a process that proved far more difficult than they imagined. That’s what I anticipated in these talks. I remember my visits to the NFLPA offices in Washington, D.C., where I left questioning how they had the manpower to go up against the league. I also visited league officials, and walked away with the eerie sense that they were in no mood to compromise.

Driving home last week after the announcement of the deal, I was listening to ESPN Radio. One of its personalities was on a rant about how no one should get credit for the deal because it was all about “greed.” The drivel didn’t surprise me, and there were similar comments from talking heads looking for their angle to the story. I appreciate a skeptical media. But in this day and age, where compromise is seen as a sign of failure, where negotiations are now about obstructionism until one side “wins,” where statesmanship is seen as appeasement and weakness, I give full credit to the principals involved in this deal. (Yes, that was a shot at the attitude and approach in our nation’s capital).

Most believed a deal would be reached before owners and players started losing money, as the stakes over a $9 billion industry are too great to put at risk. But negotiations aren’t that rooted in reality. For the NFL and the players, there were complicated issues that had to be “collectively” bargained. It was not just “greed.” Throughout July, I was impressed by the countless hours, chartered flights and dedication to talks. I heard Roger Goodell say time and again, “We’re working hard.” And let’s be clear: These people worked very hard. In the season of summer holidays and July 4 barbecues, true leaders stepped up. Goodell’s exhaustion was evident, while DeMaurice Smith proved skeptics wrong by showing adroit relationship-building and negotiating skills. I was consistently impressed by the persistence and presence of Jeff Saturday and Domonique Foxworth. The calm John Mara and passionate Jerry Jones were time and again traveling around the country to negotiate.

Even those whose body and spirit were challenged didn’t falter. The stamina shown by Executive Committee Chairman Jerry Richardson, who is just 2 1/2 years removed from a heart transplant, should be appreciated by all. And one can’t say enough about the efforts of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who shuttled from location to location all while the love of his life and wife of 48 years neared her final days. If there’s a statesman for the modern NFL, it may just be Kraft.

It’s easy to criticize and question the actions of today’s leaders. It makes for better copy; I get it. But there are times when one should just tip a cap and appreciate the accomplishments of many hardworking individuals. This, to me, is clearly one of those times.

Where today’s politicians obstruct progress for their own self-interests, these people worked together in a spirit of compromise to reach a historic deal. Their work reflected well on the sports business. Well done.

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

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