NFL Players Assn. leader DeMaurice Smith and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell… (Associated Press )
The NFL and players are inching closer to a labor agreement, building enough momentum that the sides barely lifted their heads Friday to acknowledge a significant court decision that permits the league to keep the lockout in place.
No one on the outside can truly say the exact nature of those NFL-NFL Players Assn. negotiations that have gone on for the past two days at a Manhattan law firm, but every indication is that talks are moving forward in a lurching manner, and there's a good chance a deal could be struck before training camps or exhibition games are disrupted.
Two important dates on the horizon are July 19, when Judge Arthur J. Boylan, the federal magistrate mediating the labor dispute, has scheduled a negotiating session in Minneapolis, and July 21, when the NFL owners will be meeting and could vote on a potential deal. It would take a three-quarters majority to reach an agreement.
With the rhetoric cooling and the labor fight appearing to be in its final days, one way to look at this dying battle is through the teachings of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who wrote about the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
In a way, those describe the arc of this labor skirmish.
Denial: Back in 2008, when NFL owners unanimously opted out of the last collective bargaining agreement, a lockout seemed unlikely. New stadiums, record TV deals, unparalleled popularity — come on, would anybody really strangle that golden goose?
Anger: This began to build to a crescendo around this year's Super Bowl and continued through March and April. Mistrust was rampant on both sides, and players openly called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a liar, branding him Roger the Dodger and accusing him of sidestepping their tough questions.
Bargaining: To some degree, there have been negotiations throughout this process. But the most desperate bargaining came in early March, when owners and players were spending their days before a federal mediator ostensibly to avoid a meltdown. There was a flicker of hope when those talks were extended, but that meltdown ultimately came, with the players decertifying as a union and the owners locking them out.
Depression: One word — "litigation."
Acceptance: That's where we are now, with owners and players looking vaguely like partners again, engaging in meaningful talks and working toward a solution. With camps less than a month away, they have accepted the seriousness of the situation and realize they are in danger of losing fans and millions of dollars in preseason revenues.
"The reality of losing money has a great way of encouraging reasonableness," said David Baker, who understands this labor fight better than most, both as the former commissioner of the Arena Football League (whose players were represented by the NFL Players Assn.) and as the father of Atlanta Falcons tackle Sam Baker.
Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, head of the decertified union, have to be hoping their constituents are somewhat reasonable. Both men are cutting their first labor deal — one that will define them in their current jobs — and the pressure is on them to, one, not back off a bit and, two, leave no scraps on the table. At some point, though, they will have to accept that this is the best they can do and sell that deal to their employers, whether it's the owners or the players.
It was a positive sign Friday when, after the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the NFL could keep the lockout in place, there was no celebration from the owners. Instead, the league and players issued a joint statement saying they were determined to keep negotiating.
The talks are not just about how to divide $9.3 billion in annual revenues. There are other issues at play, among them blood testing for human growth hormone, a reduction in off-season workload for the players, deciding which legal body has the authority to resolve disputes arising out of the new deal, and whether the next deal is a traditional collective bargaining agreement or — as the players' lawyers would want — a settlement of an antitrust lawsuit.
At some point, all the denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance will be finished, and this tiresome and destructive fight will come to a merciful end.
May it rest in (labor) peace.