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NFL owners will eventually make a deal

The NFL Players Association, currently led by DeMaurice Smith, has had problems in the past maintaining solidarity.

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The NFL Players Association, currently led by DeMaurice Smith, has had problems in the past maintaining solidarity.

They can't possibly be that stupid. Keep telling yourself that.

Maybe then you'll feel better about NFL players and owners coming to a resolution.

They can't possibly be that greedy. Remind yourself of that.

Perhaps then you'll feel better about the 2011 NFL season starting on time.

For no matter how arrogant Dan Snyder is, no matter how gluttonous Jerry Jones is, no matter how wacko Al Davis is, NFL owners have got to have enough common sense to realize a protracted labor war is not worth the risk.

Presumably, that's what Thursday's 24-hour extension of an expiring collective bargaining agreement demonstrated. The owners reached the end of the cliff and realized how frightening the abyss looked.

And that's why I would expect a deal eventually to be reached in the near future. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But at some moment, at roughly 10 minutes to Armageddon, the owners will recognize they have pushed as far as they can safely go.

"There's just too much to lose on both sides for them not to work this out," said St. Petersburg attorney Tom Ramsberger, who teaches a sports law class at Stetson. "But I believed the same thing about baseball and hockey once, too."

The difference, in this case, is there are no philosophical land mines in the way. This is not about a salary cap or free agency or drug testing.

The 18-game season is, at best, a minor issue and more likely a poker chip. The pension is important, but it's not driving this battle.

No, this is simply a matter of NFL owners wanting to pocket more money. Granted, we're talking about a big chunk of money. Potentially $1 billion annually. But the NFL is already generating enough cash that the risk is even greater than the potential reward.

Right now, the NFL has more revenues than any other sport. It has more restrictive free agency. It is the only major sport without guaranteed contracts. That means the owners have it pretty darn good right now.

And they could jeopardize many of those advantages if they let this go too far.

Now, given the history of the NFL Players Association, it is generally a good idea to bet the owners' hand in any labor issue. NFL careers are short, and paychecks are precious. And that makes it difficult to keep 1,500 or more union members on the same page. Owners know this and have taken advantage of the lack of solidarity in the past.

And those factors will probably still enable the owners to come out ahead in this battle. But by threatening antitrust lawsuits, the Players Association has pulled out the nuclear warhead of defenses, and the owners have to be wary of the devastation it could create.

Which is probably why we're now in overtime instead of a lockout.

The only time football players have ever made strides in labor issues with the NFL is through legal challenges. That was how the Rozelle Rule limiting free agency was struck down in the 1970s, and that was how Plan B free agency was abolished and the current revenue pie was created in the 1990s. By threatening to decertify for the second time in 25 years, the Players Association has called ownership's bluff.

Through decertification, individual players will be free to bring antitrust lawsuits against the NFL. That means the salary cap could be at risk. And free agency could become less restrictive. And the college draft could be challenged.

That's a lot of mayhem for owners who have it pretty comfortable with the status quo.

Now the NFL will try some legal maneuvering of its own. It will claim any decertification is a sham, a thinly disguised attempt to circumvent good-faith negotiations. In legal circles, this would be known as shameless. For it was the owners themselves who began plotting this lockout years ago and have had zero interest in good-faith negotiations up till now.

How do we know this?

It was pretty much spelled out by U.S. District Judge David Doty on Wednesday. Doty has been overseeing NFL labor issues for more than a quarter of a century, and he handed the players a huge victory with a ruling this week.

What Doty sort of said to NFL owners was this:

You're a bunch of liars.

And possibly crooks.

Long ago, the owners agreed a certain percentage of their revenues would be used for player salaries. That agreement presupposed the owners would try to keep revenues as high as possible.

But this week's ruling seemed to suggest owners might have signed a national TV deal with smaller revenues in previous seasons (thus lowering the player salary pool) in exchange for a half-dozen Brinks trucks in 2011 to guard against a possible lockout.

In other words, the owners have been planning a lockout for years and have essentially been hiding money from the players to use as their war chest in case of a prolonged labor dispute.

It was a fine misdirection play. A valiant attempt to deceive. But it didn't work. And now owners have to decide whether they're willing to risk having a federal judge decide the playing field. And whether they're willing to risk alienating their fans.

The owners can be hardheaded. They can be cheap. They can be presumptuous.

But they can't be this stupid.

They have to make a deal.

NFL owners will eventually make a deal 03/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 3, 2011 11:17pm]
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