United front buys NFL time

It might end up being more illusion than reality, but the united front Paul Tagliabue put forth Thursday bought the NFL a glimmer of hope for labor peace.

Updated: March 5, 2006, 12:36 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Traditionally a man who has been far more about substance than style during his 17-season tenure, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped out of character a bit on Thursday morning.

And by the end of the day, it paid off, with the NFL and the NFL Players Association mutually backing away, at least for 72 hours, from the stark precipice of a potential labor abyss.

In summoning league owners (many of whom loathed having to make a trip they assumed would be inconsequential) to Manhattan on Thursday morning, Tagliabue wasn't rallying the troops for one desperate attempt at cobbling together a consensus to extend the collective bargaining agreement. No matter how much arm-twisting the commissioner might have undertaken, the NFL wasn't going to achieve in one morning what its best labor minds couldn't accomplish over the past year of negotiations.

But maybe now, with a reprieve, sanity will prevail. That's a big maybe, however, in the big picture.

Those who bought into the notion that the owners were convening for a "last gasp" attempt at avoiding the kind of labor strife that marked the 1980s were sold a flimsy bill of goods. So here's hoping the overpriced scrambled eggs at the owners' hotel were pretty good and that the pricey coffee was well-brewed.

Still, owners traipsed in from all over the country for what turned out to be a 57-minute session, during which the commissioner was the lone speaker. One aging owner from an AFC team didn't fall asleep in his Manhattan hotel room until 3 a.m., and his wake-up call came only four hours later. Seahawks team president Tim Ruskell, who attended the scouting combine in Indianapolis, flew back to Seattle and then had to criss-cross back again for Thursday's meeting. General managers and cap experts, pressed for time as they struggle to squeeze under the 2006 spending limit, took a half-day out of their schedules that they knew they really couldn't afford.

So why, given the sense of futility and the perception that there was going to be no 11th-hour resolution to the NFL's stickiest predicament in about a decade and a half, did Tagliabue convene the meeting? Well, as colleague Chris Mortensen of ESPN noted, Tagliabue didn't want the bad news delivered by fax or e-mail or, for that matter, by "SportsCenter." He felt compelled, and rightly so, to eyeball the men who essentially pay his salary and dispatch the details face to face.

Oh, yeah, there's also another reason for the meeting: Solidarity. Or at least the fašade of a united front.

And it was the show of solidarity, in part, that played some role in the late afternoon announcement that the league and its players had delayed the start of free agency for three days, in the hopes that negotiations can be resumed. The question is begged: Who blinked first? And in the first few hours after the league's statement that an agreement had been reached to push back free agency, there was no definitive answer.

But this much we know: It was NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, not Tagliabue, who said on at least four occasions in the last few weeks that "under no circumstances" would free agency be delayed. Given his laser-repaired eyesight, it should be noted, Tagliabue doesn't blink quite as much as he once did, now that he has abandoned those lawyerly-looking spectacles he once wore. The union agreed to the delay, sources said, when the league apprised them a new proposal was forthcoming. But they didn't have to stop the clock on free agency and, rest assured, one reason they did was because veteran players had begun to phone the NFLPA offices to question what was going on.

Don't ever call it a groundswell because NFL players, who for years have never held their association accountable for anything, remain too passive for that description to apply. But enough players seemed to summon sufficient gumption to make a difference. And, truth be told, the NFL was under pressure from some cap-bloated teams who were having problems getting under the spending limit.

Not surprisingly, my ol' homeboy owner, Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was typically in the middle of the moderation debate, as was Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers. Should a deal be struck over the weekend, still a long shot proposition, those two will be recalled as essential to the agreement. But so will Tagliabue and his clever gambit of creating the illusion of league solidarity.

And it is, for sure, an illusion.

Never mind that the 32 owners voted unanimously to break off talks with the NFLPA, a group that has now been labeled as unreasonable in its demands. Anyone who actually believes that the 32 owners who huddled in the meeting room of a hotel adjacent to Grand Central Station on Thursday really are all on the same track is na´ve.

To be sure, there are differences, widely divergent philosophies, particularly between those owners at the disparate poles of the NFL revenue spectrum.

But as Tagliabue stood in front of the television cameras, noting that the situation is "as dire as dire can be," the owners flanking him likely nodded in unison. Whether they agree with the stalemate, or how the NFL and NFLPA had arrived at a perilous threshold and potentially defining moment for the sport, none of the franchise stewards uttered a discouraging word on Thursday morning.

Doubtless, the commissioner had imposed a gag rule of sorts during the meeting, and, personal feelings aside, no owner was inclined to breach it. Even owners who were reached on cell phones, as they bolted in limousines to the various New York-area airports, declined to speak for non-attribution. One NFC owner, repeating a lament he had originally offered on Wednesday, said, sighing, hours before the extension was announced: "It is what it is."

What it is, of course, is still a mess. There are no assurances that, given three more days to shuffle around millions of dollars, the numbers will add up at the end. There is no guarantee that owners can bridge the revenues schism that exists. But it is a mess that Tagliabue, to this point, has kept in-house.

For weeks, there have been whispers from NFLPA operatives that part of the problem in negotiations was that the commissioner did not have sufficient votes to push through a collective bargaining agreement extension, that the battle between the high- and low-revenue franchises was a hurdle. And there is almost certainly truth in that assessment.

But there is also truth in this: The role of any union is to ensure jobs and to ensure them at a rate of livable compensation. The NFLPA has done the latter but, in some ways, has failed at the former. The "Bloody Thursday" reference used by ESPN.com in a column earlier this week became a self-fulfilling prophesy even before Thursday arrived. Players who have certain financial expectations in free agency and in the draft, based on compensation levels from recent years, will soon discover, if there is no deal, the realities that the lack of an extension will not permit those monetary levels to be achieved.

Until there is some sign of movement, some tangible element that points to a shifting of the hardened stances that both sides have adopted in recent weeks, the three-day reprieve arrived at Thursday afternoon is little more than false hope. That there is some glimmer of hope, though, is in part a function of the united front that Tagliabue created on Thursday morning.

Whether it was illusory or not.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

ALSO SEE