The Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service Thursday announced that the NFL and NFLPA have agreed to mediation in their ongoing CBA negotiations. At the invitation of the FMCS, and with the agreement of both the league and union, the ongoing NFL labor talks will be conducted under the auspices of FMCS Dir George Cohen in DC, starting Friday. The agency said that it will refrain from any comment regarding the future schedule of labor meetings. Last year, Cohen supervised CBA negotiations between MLS and its players union, helping the sides reach a deal before the '10 season (THE DAILY). In N.Y., Judy Battista notes the current CBA expires in less than two weeks, and the "decision to attempt to intensify negotiations with the help of a neutral party is the first significant move at making progress since owners abruptly canceled a negotiating session last week." Still, the developments "do not guarantee a new deal will be finished before the current one expires." Consultation with the FMCS is "voluntary and is not binding," meaning Cohen "merely hopes to help the sides find common ground." Battista notes in four decades with the law firm Bredhoff & Kaiser, Cohen worked for the MLBPA and NBPA. After his retirement, he "was on the advisory board" of the NHLPA, and also represented the MLBPA before then U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor "when she issued the injunction that wound up ending the strike of the mid-1990s" (N.Y. TIMES, 2/18).
CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC: FANHOUSE.com's Dan Graziano noted this is the "first time the NFL has ever agreed to federal mediation in such a dispute." That could indicate that the league and owners are "feeling pressure as a result of some recent PR hits they've taken over the Super Bowl seat fiasco, their walking out of last week's session and the reports" that Panthers Owner Jerry Richardson was condescending to Colts QB Peyton Manning at a recent meeting. But it also could be "part of the owners' ongoing attempt to persuade the public that they're serious about getting a deal done when the other side suspects they're not" (FANHOUSE.com, 2/17). Colts C and NFLPA exec board member Jeff Saturday said, "Anything that kind of breathes new life into this thing and sets us back down at the table and gets us back to negotiating, I think it can do nothing but help us" ("NFL Live," ESPN, 2/17). NFLPA President Kevin Mawae in an e-mail said, "Any time that both sides of negotiations can get together, whether through conventional means of bargaining or mediation, to come to an agreement that can benefit all parties, it is a good thing." Friday is scheduled to be the "first of seven straight scheduled days of negotiations between the league and the players' union." But one source said, "Personally, I would be surprised if they met more than two or three days in a row" (ESPN.com, 2/17). N.Y.-based labor attorney Seth Borden, who is not involved in the NFL negotiations, said, "By all accounts, the level of trust in the relationship is not there. It's possible that someone from the outside can be just what's needed here. On the other hand, it might be too much to ask for him to work through this if there's not that level of trust" (WASHINGTON POST, 2/18).
STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION: In Houston, John McClain wrote bringing in a mediator is a "good move for several reasons." Having Cohen at the bargaining table "might reduce the big egos in the room," and at the very least, "it's a good public relations move because it makes the rest of us think both sides are serious about reaching" a new CBA. McClain: "By bringing in the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the owners and union are showing they can't do this by themselves. They can't even agree to disagree" (CHRON.com, 2/17). In Boston, Greg Bedard wrote, "This is a positive development, although it seems a bit early for a mediator to become involved since there haven't been any substantial talks yet between the two sides" (BOSTON.com, 2/17). NFL Network's Albert Breer said, "This is good because the two sides have been so far apart on the financial structure of the game. Maybe this guy comes in and helps bring them closer together" ("NFL Total Access," NFL Network, 2/17). Gabe Feldman, Dir of Tulane Univ.'s Sports Law Program, said, "I think it's a good step in the sense that it'll bring the two parties together. It's always helpful to bring an outside perspective to bridge the gap" (USA TODAY, 2/18). Comcast SportsNet legal analyst Steve Moskowitz noted a mediator "can aid" in bargaining talks. Moskowitz: "But the thing here is you have very sophisticated parties and a lot of people, especially the owners, are really set in what they're trying to do. Also, trying to get the union decertified doesn't exactly help with the good spirit of the negotiations" ("Chronicle Live," Comcast SportsNets Bay Area, 2/17). In N.Y., Paul Schwartz writes, "Cohen will need the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job to help these sides come together" (N.Y. POST, 2/18).
HOW WILL IT ALL PLAY OUT? SI.com's Don Banks wrote, "Whenever labor peace finally resurfaces in the NFL, what will it look like?" One NFL team exec said, "I don't think anybody really knows where it's going. Things aren't off to a good start. But at the end of the day it's a negotiation, and sometimes those can come together quickly, like it did in 2006. I'm going to try to remain optimistic until it all goes the other way. I refuse to believe that (NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell and (NFLPA executive director) DeMaurice Smith want that as their legacy, that they let the game stop." One player agent said that an 18-game regular season is "fait accompli, even though players and fans don't really want it." Banks wrote the players "will realize the extra money generated will lessen the impact of their losing a portion of the league's revenue pool, and come to view 18 games as a more acceptable tradeoff." Sources noted that neither side "seems to be starting the labor negotiations with a targeted point of where the percentage of players-owners revenue split has to be to work for them." Part of that is "because there are still too many moving parts that will play into how those percentages fit into the final agreement." Another team exec said, "Would the league accept 54 percent (of post-expenses revenue to players) if it got everything else it wanted in terms of the 18-game schedule, the rookie wage scale and the forfeiture language? Or is it better to fight for 53 percent and losing all the rest of those battles? I don't know if anybody knows yet." Banks noted both sides "recognize that the players' slice of revenues will decrease from 2006 standards, and the owners' will increase," and "every percentage point it moves represents millions of dollars" (SI.com, 2/17).
NO COMBINE BOYCOTT: NFLPA Assistant Exec Dir for External Affairs George Atallah during an online chat Thursday said that the union "will not use current college players in their fight with the NFL." In N.Y., Ralph Vacchiano notes there "had been some talk of a union-inspired combine boycott," but there "appeared to be little support for the idea among agents." Still, sources indicated that while a boycott of next week's draft combine "appears to be off the table, a draft boycott remains a possibility." Vacchiano: "Telling those players not to go would be a way to at least mildly hurt the league without affecting the future of the boycotting players" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 2/18).
WHAT ABOUT THE FANS? In Philadelphia, Sam Donnellon in an open letter to NFL fans writes, "If they do cancel part or all of next season, they expect you to wait for them, which you will, wait for them with your season-ticket and seat-license money, with your funds for the NFL Sunday Ticket, for parking, for merchandise, for whatever. Because as insane as this potential work stoppage would be, it would make even less sense if they thought that even some of that $9 billion wouldn't be there when they sort it all out" (PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS, 2/18).