WASHINGTON >> Welcome to The NFL Lockout.
As far back as May 2008, it became a possibility.
As recently as a week ago — when owners and players agreed to extend the deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement — Commissioner Roger Goodell made it sound avoidable.
And yet here we are: The country’s most popular sport — water-cooler fodder for six months of Mondays; generator of more than $9 billion in annual revenues; responsible for the two most-watched programs in U.S. TV history, the 2010 and 2011 Super Bowls — is stuck in a holding pattern, thanks to its first work stoppage in nearly a quarter of a century.
The owners imposed a lockout on the players Saturday, essentially shutting down operations. That came hours after talks broke off and the union dissolved itself, meaning players no longer are protected under labor law but instead are now allowed to take their chances in federal court under antitrust law. Nine NFL players, including superstar quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, and one college player headed for the pros filed a class-action lawsuit in Minnesota and asked for a preliminary injunction to block a lockout, even before it went into effect.
“I know this sort of gives us a bad name — as well as the owners — in some fans’ eyes,” said Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, one of the plaintiffs in the case that forever will be known as Brady et al vs. National Football League et al. “Some fans are more upset with the owners, and some are more upset with the players.”
The lockout, a right management has to shut down a business when a CBA expires, means there can be no communication between the teams and current NFL players; no players — including those drafted in April — can be signed; teams won’t pay for players’ health insurance.
They took the term “lockout” rather literally at the Tennessee Titans’ headquarters in Nashville, where a metal chain secured the main gate to the parking lot’s front entrance, an extra bit of security normally not seen there.
The NFL has enjoyed labor peace since a 1987 strike by the players, but now next season could be jeopardized, depending on what happens in court.
Fans really will be upset if regular-season games are lost. No Sundays on the couch or at a bar, scanning television screens for the latest “Did you see that?!” plays. No fantasy football leagues or office pools.
So what happened?
With so much at stake, why did everything fall apart?
Despite 16 days spent in face-to-face talks at the office of a presidentially appointed federal mediator, how did it come to this?
In terms of the key bargaining issues, there really was one that stands out: Put simply, owners and players couldn’t figure out a mutually palatable way to split all those billions of dollars that come from TV contracts, ticket and merchandise sales, sponsorship deals, etc.
By Friday afternoon, when mediator George Cohen declared “no useful purpose would be served” by asking the parties to keep negotiating, it appeared the NFL and union were about $185 million apart on how much owners should get up front each season for certain operating expenses before splitting the rest of the revenues with players. That’s a far cry from the $1 billion that separated the sides for months.
There also was a significant standoff on the union’s insistence on seeing years of detailed financial statements for all 32 teams. The players’ point, basically, was: If you say you need more money from us up front, prove it by showing us what you bring in and what you spend and what you’re left with.
But this wasn’t merely about numbers.
It also was about trust and respect: Each side has accused the other of bargaining in bad faith.
The NFL filed a charge against the union with the National Labor Relations Board. The union has said owners were planning for a lockout since they exercised an opt-out clause in the old CBA in 2008. Indeed, U.S. District Court judge David Doty — who has overseen NFL labor matters since the 1990s and is expected to handle Friday’s filings — sided with the players in a March 2 ruling, saying the league improperly negotiated TV contracts with an eye to a lockout.
And neither side held back as the rhetoric escalated Thursday and Friday.
After talks ended, NFL Players Association executive DeMaurice Smith referred to football as a “business where two partners don’t trust each other,” and said: “While the players were moving forward, thinking that this was about fairness, honesty and transparency, the National Football League was meeting in secret to talk about collusion, conspiracy, leverage and breaking our game.”
Jim Quinn, outside counsel for the union, spoke about “greed on the part of these owners” and, in reference to NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash, said: “I hate to say this, but he has not told the truth to our players or our fans. He has, in a word, lied to them about what happened today and what’s happened over the last two weeks and the last two years.”
Pash, for his part, noted one dollar figure Smith had mentioned to reporters a few days earlier and said it was “not close to factual.” Pash also spoke of the union’s “commitment to litigate, as we’ve said all along.”
New York Giants owner John Mara chimed in, too, saying, “I never really got the feeling during the past weeks that (the players) were serious about negotiating.”
The league’s statement Saturday announcing the lockout called the NFLPA’s decertification a “sham” and said the players’ court action is “built on the indisputably false premise that the NFLPA has stopped being a union and will merely delay the process of reaching an agreement.”
New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, a member of the league’s powerful labor committee, issued a statement Saturday saying, “I remain confident that an agreement will be reached and that the 2011 season will be played.”
He added that he hopes the sides will “return to the negotiating table very soon.”
That’s theoretically possible, and it echoed what Goodell said when he left the mediator’s office Friday.
Then again, the previous Friday, Goodell pointed to the decision to delay the expiration of the old CBA and said: “The fact that we’re continuing this dialogue is a positive sign.”
The signs were more ominous a week later.