Blame to be found on both sides of the brawl
So the National Football League is now in a lockout, one that will be settled with the help of a US District Court judge.
The blame game started in earnest Friday after the NFL Players Association renounced its status as a union and the league made plans to lock the players out.
The spin put forth by both sides was predictably out of control. It often can be difficult to wade through the barrage of words and finger pointing, but we’re trying to do that.
Fans want to know whom to blame for the nation’s most popular sport placing its 2011 season in peril. While games on the field are black and white — there’s always a winner in the end — off the field it’s not nearly as clear.
But this much is certain: The owners and the players share in the blame equally, no matter what each side says.
We’ll start with the leaders, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. This is the first time either has been at the forefront of these labor negotiations. We won’t know who set the right course for his side until a judge rules on the players’ injunction to stop the lockout, a process that will start this week, but the fact that we’re in a work stoppage shows that both failed on the big stage.
Goodell is the public face of the NFL. He was well-trained to be that, as he came up through the public relations ranks. But you certainly couldn’t tell by his performance in front of the cameras last week, especially after negotiations broke off Friday.
Goodell gave only a statement, which was the same spin he’s been putting out during this entire process. He took no questions, leaving that up to lead negotiator Jeff Pash, who actually did quite well.
Sorry, but when the NFL is hours away from shutting down operations, the commissioner must say more than, “Ultimately this is going to be negotiated at the negotiating table.’’ It’s the line he’s been spewing for two years. You might as well have put a parrot up there because the line hasn’t deviated one iota.
Goodell has to answer questions. You are the steward of this game. You are the first commissioner in 24 years to preside over a work stoppage. This happened on your watch. You must tell the public why and in detail.
We did not see a leader Friday. We saw a politician — understandable, since Goodell’s late father was a US Senator — who tried to stay out of the fray, as if he were trying to win re-election.
Here’s a bulletin: You’re right in the middle of it, and declining to publicly get your hands dirty won’t hide that fact.
As for Smith, the man can talk a good game, that’s for sure. It’s also not surprising, since he made his living as a trial attorney.
And it’s certainly true that the players never have been more unified. But that has less to do with Smith and more to do with the late Gene Upshaw, Smith’s predecessor. Upshaw often ruled the NFLPA like a king and didn’t let the players have much of a voice when it came time to get a deal done.
While Smith certainly laid out some convincing — but ultimately tiring — arguments for his side, there was one overriding truth: At the end of the day, there was no way he would agree to the players taking a pay cut unless the courts forced him to.
When Smith ran for his position against three other candidates, do you think he told union leadership, “You’re going to have to give back some of your money but I’ll get a deal done’’?
Of course not. He told the players he would protect what they had. That was his job. Now, if a court steps in and says a lockout can proceed, Smith can agree to a deal and save face at the same time. But that wasn’t happening until decertification happened.
In essence, the current situation was a fait accompli unless the owners caved in the face of decertification. Smith and the players knew they had Judge David S. Doty waiting as their guardian angel to block a lockout. They’d better be right, or else ownership will have the upper hand and Smith’s play will have failed. If that happens, he might not have a job when the union reconstitutes.
As for the union’s arguments against agreeing to compromise, they’ve been high on rhetoric and low on specifics.
Smith said to reporters, “I dare any one of you to show an economic indicator the NFL has fallen on hard times.’’
As Smith went to walk out of the room, I tried to play devil’s advocate by pointing out that the net operating profit for the Green Bay Packers — the only NFL team that has to show some of its books, because it is publicly owned — has fallen every year under the now-expired CBA, from $34 million in 2008 to $20.1 million in 2009 and to $9.8 million last year.
Now, there’s a little bit of accounting going on there — the Packers had a lot of up-front money paid on player contracts in the uncapped year in 2010 — but at least there’s some indication that things aren’t improving on the financial side.
Smith continued to walk out the door, and spokesman George Atallah answered by saying, “You know our position on that. It’s one team.’’
Yes, but it’s one team in the middle of the financial realm of the NFL. If that’s the bottom line for the Packers, who have restaurants and shops on site to grow revenue, how must things look for the Bills, Raiders, and Bengals?
Smith and the players said they wanted full financial transparency before they agreed to any more cutbacks. It’s a fair request. Doesn’t mean it had to happen.
The NFL offered to have an independent auditor prepare year-by-year profitability statements for each team. The union refused. Given the NFL’s greed and ruthlessness that was exposed when Doty ruled against it in the television contract case, the union had every reason to distrust the NFL. But that doesn’t mean a deal couldn’t be struck.
The NFL seems to have a case when it says the union “left a very good deal on the table.’’ In the details provided by the league, the NFL seemed to compromise on a variety of issues, including the rookie wage scale, the division of revenue (it offered to split the difference in the end), $82 million over two years to retired players, and significant reductions in offseason workouts and in-season contact even before an 18-game schedule entered the picture.
That being said, the NFL’s offer, according to the NFLPA, to start the 2011 cap at $141 million was laughable, considering the cap was $149 million in 2009 and would have been $154 million in 2010 if there were a cap.
At least offer to freeze the cap. Don’t ask for a $416 million leaguewide pay cut in 2011. That’s almost a non-starter.
Besides detailing the effects on the 2011 cap, the NFLPA fell woefully short on providing details for how it wanted to correct anything. What we got from Smith was a cap model that would save $550 million over four years, or a $1 billion cash offer for equity in any NFL team or property.
Instead of hearing the NFLPA’s proposals on each of the key negotiating points, we heard how the NFL fell short in its eyes.
Don’t tell us the problems, offer solutions. If you’re simply playing defense, you’re not advancing the negotiations.
We’ve also heard a lot about how the players felt disrespected by the owners, who were largely absent at the negotiating table, during the process. Letting personal feelings get involved is no way to conduct a business negotiation. It’s why the players hire agents to negotiate their own contracts.
Neither side is an angel in this. The owners won’t be poor anytime soon. The players never have been better compensated. The fans and low-level workers in the NFL are the ones who will suffer.
In a game in which there are few facts, those are undeniable.
Green, 32, gave a revealing interview on John Thompson’s radio show in Washington while in town.
He lauded Bill Belichick and talked about how the Patriots are a unique organization.
“It’s different as far as the way things are handled,’’ said Green, who is in his second season with the Texans after eight with the Patriots. “Coach Belichick, the demanding schedule we had, the long hours, we put them in, breaking down film, even doing things in the community. That was very important up there.
“It starts from up top with Mr. [Robert] Kraft and it trickled down to all the players. But we all had each other’s back because we were all accountable for each other on and off the field. That, too, I guess, was part of the success that New England has.
“It was very, very demanding. [Belichick] would always say, ‘I know meetings start at 8 o’clock but it would be smart if you come here around 6:30 to get some film, get some studying in, because here it’s football 24/7. It’s your job.’
“This is what he wants with the weight room, the film study, asking questions, so you always better know the answer and be alert. Guys would call each other and try to get study groups together.
“It was like I was back in college doing school work. It was that serious.
“Like Coach said, by the time Sunday comes, you’re supposed to know your opponent inside and out. You’re supposed to know what he’s eating for breakfast in the morning. It was always more and more of that stuff every year.’’
Not that Green is complaining.
“Everything Coach taught me, man, as a player . . . if I went to any other team, I don’t know if I’d be as wise a player on the field,’’ he said. “I was being a student of the game. I had my books, I was going to school, I was going to the classroom with my professor. That’s what it felt like.’’
Green also had some thoughts on the proposed 18-game schedule, and he’s one of the few players who believes it could work.
“We’re asking for some things to happen — two bye weeks, less training camp, less contact, less offseason workouts — so I think if that happens, if we get all those that we ask for, I think it’s not going to be a bad marriage,’’ Green said.
“I think it’s going to work out because the biggest thing is now it’s almost year-round working out. We’re always doing something. But if we have offseason time with our families, we’ll need that because if they’re going to give us extra games, it will put a lot of pressure on the body because it’s something we’re not used to.’’
A better read on Kindle Ravens coach John Harbaugh gave his most optimistic outlook to date on linebacker Sergio Kindle, who hasn’t played since being a second-round pick in 2010. Kindle, who had some character issues at Texas, fractured his skull falling down stairs in July. He wasn’t cleared for any football activities last year and wasn’t sure he ever would be able to play again. But last week Harbaugh said, “I’m more optimistic now than ever before that he has a chance to come back and play. It will just be a matter of seeing how well he does.’’ Kindle has met with several doctors, including some in Boston, in an effort to get cleared. “There’s some hope there,’’ Harbaugh said. “I don’t know how to describe it exactly in medical terms, but [doctors are] very pleased with his progress. There’s a chance he could be cleared to compete in football at some point in time.’’
Cox headed to court After attempting to bar the media and public from a preliminary hearing before the sexual assault trial of Broncos cornerback Perrish Cox, Cox’s attorney waived his client’s right to the hearing. An attorney representing the Associated Press, the Denver Post, and the New York Times argued that closing such a hearing would be unprecedented and noted that the judge in Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault case did not approve a similar request. Cox will be in court May 16 for a hearing, where he’s expected to enter a plea. Most of the documents in the case have been sealed, including an affidavit containing details of the allegations that led to Cox’s arrest Dec. 9. Cox faces one count of sexual assault while the victim was physically helpless and one count of sexual assault while the victim was incapable of determining the nature of the conduct. If convicted, Cox faces two years to life in prison. The fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma State started nine games for the Broncos last season as a rookie.
Short yardage NFL scouts continue to be intrigued with the athletic ability of Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan. At the school’s pro day last week, some scouts asked for the 6-foot-4-inch, 286-pound Jordan to do pass-coverage drills. Any ability in that will only enhance his draft position. Jordan is a dynamic athlete who certainly would fit in the Patriots’ 3-4 scheme any number of ways . . . Ed Wang, a reserve tackle for the Bills last season as a rookie, spent a week in his native China last month to promote football and Under Armor, which will open its first store there this month. Wang is the first NFL player of full Chinese descent. The parents of the 6-5, 300-pound Virginia Tech product were track athletes. The NFL, which has made no secret of its desire to grow the game overseas, opened its Beijing office in 2007 . . . Packers coach Mike McCarthy told reporters last week that Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk — who both signed contract extensions in recent months — are the team’s starting inside linebackers. That means Nick Barnett could be traded or cut. The 6-2, 236-pound Barnett has had season-ending surgery two of the past three seasons (ACL and wrist). When healthy, the 29-year-old has been a tackling machine and has played well in 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. Barnett is coming back from a delicate wrist surgery but is fully healed. He likely will get a lot of attention from teams once the NFL reopens for business . . . Free agent receiver Braylon Edwards said last week that he wants to remain with the Jets. “I definitely want to come back and maybe take advantage of the AFC championship — this year maybe we’ll win one,’’ he told reporters after a court appearance on his DUI charge from September. “I love being a Jet. There is interest on their side, there is interest on my side. We have to wait and see what happens.’’ Edwards had 53 catches for 904 yards and seven touchdowns last season . . . Ex-QB Pat White, a second-round pick of the Dolphins in 2009, told the Kansas City Royals last week that he is retiring from baseball. White had signed a minor league contract after being released by the Dolphins in September. He previously had been drafted by the Angels and Yankees.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.