NFL extension: Lessons from the past

9/2/2011 - NFL

In his more than 20 years as an attorney, David Cornwell has worked both for the NFL and for the interests of players. As the expiration of pro football's labor agreement approached this week, Cornwell thought of something that would rankle his former boss, the late Pete Rozelle, whenever the league and the players' union battled over labor issues.

"Pete Rozelle said he hated when the business of the sport became as public as the competition on the field," Cornwell said.

Even with this latest extension to next Friday, the business of the sport has eclipsed the competition on the field, or at least for now has pre-empted the offseason of events that leads, with much examination and fanfare, to the competition on the field. And there is no on-field competition, not in the United States, anyway, as celebrated, as embraced and as obsessed over as the competition in the NFL.

But as the NFL's 32 owners, their commissioner and those who manage the league's fortunes haggled with the players' union and its 1,900 constituents in recent weeks over how the two sides should split somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 billion in revenues, that competition became second to the business of football.

Whenever I'm told I need to make sense of a labor negotiation and its nuances, I turn to Cornwell, who runs his own sports law firm now, because Cornwell has worked both sides, all 360 degrees of these battles. So when I called him this week, my first question was whether this dispute is all that different from the one that led to a players' strike in 1982 and another in 1987 -- the famous one that led to the NFL going to the bullpen for "replacement" players.

Cornwell's answer was, "It's not particularly different because of the potential impact it might have on the league and the men who play the game. But there is a noticeable difference in what's at stake. In 1987, remember, the players were fighting for free agency, which was a critical structural change. Now, what's at stake doesn't seem to be critical enough to justify the risk to the game."

Boom. That's it.

That's what a lot of us have been thinking. It's what I was thinking as I drove to the PTI offices in downtown Washington, D.C., late this week, right past the satellite trucks lined up on 21st Street and the mob of reporters (I was one of them in 1987) standing out on L Street NW, hoping to get a word from a player or a management representative or an agent or perhaps even federal mediator George Cohen. Are the issues up for debate worth messing with $9 billion? That's nine billion.

It must sound as absurd to the two sides as it does to the rest of us, which to a great degree must be why the two sides ignored the initial Thursday midnight deadline, essentially stopping the clock and continuing the talks. And this speaks to another Cornwell contention that "there are so many good and smart people on both sides, once they get through their competing interests, they will recognize their common interests, that clearly there's a middle ground toward which they ought to be working."

To that end, President Barack Obama said the two sides certainly ought to be able to sensibly figure out how to divvy up $9 billion, especially since the people who pay the freight are trying to hold on to jobs and make mortgage payments and figure out how to come up with the money to send their children to college.

It became fairly predictable that the negotiations would get to this stage when Paul Tagliabue retired as commissioner and union chief Gene Upshaw died. Those two had become like the Sunshine Boys late in their tenures, men who represented their respective interests but nonetheless knew when to ignore the loudest rabble-rousers in the room and act less like adversaries and more like business partners, which of course is what they were.

Tagliabue and Upshaw took a lot of heat, much of it from their own constituents, about giving away too much to the other side, which probably means they did exactly the right thing. Revenues and salaries grew so wildly that it was difficult to take seriously anybody on either side who complained.

I asked Cornwell whether Tagliabue and Upshaw could have pushed beyond this stalemate, undoubtedly an unfair question. And he said, "The dynamic is different, to be sure. This is a business of relationships. If George Cohen accomplishes anything, it should be to establish an atmosphere between the two sides, between D [DeMaurice] Smith and Roger [Goodell], where one taps the other on the shoulder and says, 'Let's go get a deal.'"

That essentially is what Upshaw and Tagliabue did. But they also had a level of tenure and therefore a level of professional security and trust from their constituents that Goodell and Smith, being rookies at the NFL's collective bargaining processes, do not yet have.

"Paul and Gene knew what Armageddon looked like, and they were able to say to their constituents and each other, 'We can't take our sport there again,'" Cornwell said.

We're starting to get the impression that a sense of cooperation and even fear now exists in these negotiations. The players unquestionably gained a measure of leverage when U.S. District Court Judge David Doty ruled earlier in the week that the owners could not avail themselves of the $4 billion of network revenues that essentially sat as a war chest in the event of a lockout. With that as a bit of impetus, the two sides seemed finally able to get past the posturing stage and get down to work.

Plenty of people in football circles now believe the two sides can come to an agreement within the next couple of weeks, even if that means yet another extension of the deadline. That, however, doesn't mean the sessions won't be contentious.

"They'll push each others' buttons for as long as they can," Cornwell said before the extension was announced Friday, noting that not only do the current players not have a sense of how bad it was in 1987, but neither do some of the younger owners who have come aboard since then.

"Eventually," Cornwell said, "they'll work it out. The question is whether they'll do damage to the game in the process. In the meantime, it's another chapter in a book of a great many chapters. It's the way labor negotiations go in sports."

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.