- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The sight of Mark Murphy -- former player turned president of the Green Bay Packers -- walking out of the executive session room of an NFL owners meeting truly embodies the American dream.
His red hair and youthful looks have hardly changed since the 1980s, when he and other members of the NFL Players Association were considered the owners' worst nightmares and the union was being called a bunch of communists. Players wanted to partner. Owners wanted no part of that.
Now, of all ironies, Murphy, the former player whose work for the union helped players become partners, is on the negotiating team for the owners, hoping to settle the potential labor problems for the 2011 season.
"The irony hits me sometimes," Murphy said. "There was a session at the NFLPA headquarters in the summer. We were in the Ed Garvey Conference Room. We had a few minutes before the bargaining session and I looked up and saw pictures of the NFLPA through the decades. I was looking up. I was in the picture. Buck Briggs, who now works for the league office, was in the picture. Then it really kind of hit me.''
The work of Murphy and Ed Garvey was considered radical back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Players asked for 55 percent of gross revenue. Owners felt as though the players association might as well rip their hearts out as well if they were going to take such a deal.
Less than 30 years later, what seemed to be unreasonable and ridiculous is commonplace in sports. The NFL fought through painful labor problems in 1982 and 1987 before settling on a free-agent formula that gave players their fair share of revenue. As a result, the NFL underwent its greatest financial growth because owners and players worked together to grow revenue. The NFL is an $8 billion business still rising in popularity. In the most recent deal, players were contracted to receive 60 percent of all revenue, a number that has been trimmed by credits for owners' investments and by their decision to opt out of the salary cap in 2010.
How times change. At the owners meetings, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson made an impassioned speech to his fellow owners to stay together and get the right deal. Richardson, like Murphy, is a former player. And although Murphy didn't work through the lucrative business as Richardson did to purchase a franchise, the former Washington Redskins safety has similar status.
Murphy is the CEO and president of the Packers, a community franchise that has its fans as its shareholders. The CEO and president of the Packers has ownership status.
"We were the 55-percent-of-the-gross group,'' Murphy said of the pitch he and Garvey presented to their fellow players. "I think at the time players were getting 49 percent. I remember [Giants owner] Wellington Mara saying to me after 1982 that you should have insisted that owners just give 55 percent of the gross. We tried.''
The difference between the 1980s and now is trust. Sure, the collective bargaining extension of 2006 was won by the players because owners were about to lose the salary cap. Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue worked out a compromise with Gene Upshaw that preserved the salary cap and kept labor peace. After reflection, owners decided they had to regain some of the losses of the last extension, which has led to the current stalemate.
But recruiting Murphy into the mix as a bargainer was smart. Though his voice in the 1980s seemed radical to the owners back then, Murphy offers a voice of moderation that could help settle the issues before March 2011, when the league could lock out its players.
"I bring a different background, and I think Jerry Richardson has some of the same as a former player," Murphy said. "I think it's helpful. Certainly, we are sensitive to the issues. Hopefully, at the end of the day, I hope it helps us reach an agreement."
Murphy still can't believe what has happened to him and his league since the 1980s. He can't fully remember how he became so involved. Redskins players elected him as their union rep, and before long he became one of the main leaders on the union's bargaining team. Most feel that the strike in 1982 led to his eventual release by the Redskins in 1983, yet there he was four years later working for the union and still trying to forge a deal for a percentage of revenue.
From that experience, Murphy grew. He got a law degree at Stanford. He went on to become athletic director at Colgate and Northwestern. Then the Packers hired him as CEO and president. The ride has been incredible. And, yes, Murphy still believes a deal will be struck at some point.
"We've still got 11 months until the expiration of the contract,'' Murphy said. "It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of time, but I think we can get it done."
Perhaps the tougher challenge was what he also had to do last week. The Packers voted in favor of the new rule that protects defenseless receivers. As a former safety, one of Murphy's jobs was to protect the middle of the field and crunch receivers. The player in him had to step back and turn his thoughts to the boss who's concerned about player safety.
"I do look at it from the framework of a former defensive back,'' Murphy said. "Obviously, player safety is a huge issue. As a safety, you are running full speed and you want to break up the play. I'm glad I don't have to make those decisions on the field now. It's tough for defensive backs.''
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Once viewed as a radical voice during his playing days, Packers CEO and president Mark Murphy now offers a voice of moderation in CBA negotiations, writes John Clayton.