Chances of deal going through still tenuous

3/9/2006 - NFL

There's a line from the comic strip Pogo, penned by the late satirical cartoonist Walt Kelly, that NFL owners might consider when they convene in Dallas Tuesday to debate the most recent proposal from the NFL Players Association for extending the collective bargaining agreement.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Kelly authored the line for an Earth Day poster in 1970 and it was later used as a commentary on the Vietnam War. Nearly 40 years later, with the NFL and the union poised now to napalm a decade and a half of blissful labor coexistence and unparalleled prosperity all because of their shared avarice, the ol' Pogo line still resonates appropriately.

Especially for the owners.

By agreeing to present the union's proposal to the 32-owner membership Tuesday (the meeting starts at 3 p.m. ET), commissioner Paul Tagliabue has taken NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw off the hook with his increasingly restless and angst-ridden player constituency. And, far less important but still somewhat significant, with whatever fans are casually interested in the tedious and drawn-out labor discussions.

In any battle pitting millionaires and billionaires, the public, comprised mostly of thousandaires, typically empathizes with no one, because it can relate to neither combatant. But by taking the union's proposal to the owners, a blueprint not terribly dissimilar to the one unanimously rejected by owners Thursday in a 57-minute meeting, Tagliabue and the NFL have unwittingly declared Upshaw and the NFLPA the winners in the public relations battle.

And given the ham-handed history of the union and its leader, viewed in the past as having historically caved in labor negotiations, that is no small feat.

Under the current circumstances, no one is going to remember that Upshaw, who said numerous times that he couldn't settle for a deal that didn't include 60 percent of the total league revenues directed to players, is shy of that benchmark. Or that Upshaw, who claimed he would delay the start of free agency "under no circumstances" stopped the clock on two occasions. Nope, the NFLPA boss suddenly looks pretty good, even to the players and agents who have questioned his leadership over the past week.

Because the bottom line is this: Tagliabue has put the onus on the owners. If the deal falls apart now, it will be the owners -- who are still locked in an intramural battle over revenue sharing among themselves that could turn contentious Tuesday -- who bear the brunt of public criticism.

At this point there certainly is plenty of blame to dole out to two sides that may not have yet killed off the golden goose, but who definitely plucked some feathers from it. But the owners will catch most of the flak if the deal falls through now.

Reports on Monday indicated that Tagliabue has decided he can endorse Upshaw's plan. Some teams conceded Monday afternoon there are indications that the NFLPA proposal, which was being committed to contract language during the day, has been agreed to by both Upshaw and the commissioner. If true, that means the commissioner must now gussy it up enough to sell it to the same audience to which he panned it last week. And while one league source told ESPN.com on Monday that he had an e-mail assurance from Upshaw that the deal would go through, there are no signs that the membership is prepared to ratify it.

In fact, to the contrary, it seems Tagliabue still doesn't have sufficient support to have the deal passed by the 32 owners. And there remains some question about whether he can deliver the votes and how that will affect his legacy.

A deal that is being advertised in some quarters as tentative, in truth is tenuous.

The commissioner has only about two years left on his contract and, to his credit, would love to ensure a labor peace that continues well after his retirement. To do so will take a hard sell and considerable politicking on his part. When Tagliabue walks into the meeting room Tuesday, he will be playing to a split house, an audience divided by financial status and bottom line realities.

Remember, it takes 24 of 32 votes to pass the extension to the collective bargaining agreement. And as ESPN.com has reported several times in the past week, there remains a bloc of 9-10 low-revenue franchises that plan to oppose any extension to the CBA that doesn't adequately address their revenue sharing issues. ESPN.com has learned that representatives from several of those allied low-revenue teams huddled via telephone conference call on Monday to reaffirm their united stance.

Further, the low-revenue voting bloc, which regards the internecine squabble with its richer fraternity brothers as a high-stakes issue critical not just to competitive balance on the field but financial viability off it, has suffered no erosion. And it might actually have increased by a franchise or two.

ESPN.com is not privy to the contents of the NFLPA proposal that will be presented to the owners in a Dallas airport hotel Tuesday afternoon. But there are indications that it does not address the revenue-sharing component, certainly not to the satisfaction of the low-revenue franchises. There are some stipulations that would adjust the percentage of revenues shared with players, which the union has proposed as 59.5 percent, based on the amount of "cash over cap" in a given season.

The "cash over cap" issue -- the difference between a club's true payroll and its salary cap figure -- does tie into the widening disparity between the high- and low-revenue franchises. But officials from two low-revenue teams reiterated to ESPN.com Monday that the "cash over cap" adjustments recommended by the NFLPA proposal are inadequate as a substitute for reworked revenue sharing among the owners. And the high-revenue teams may not accept any CBA extension that penalizes them for spending too much cash over the cap.

There remains more enmity than anyone cares to admit between the high- and low-revenue franchises. The owners at the top end of the revenue rolls view increased sharing with the low-revenue teams as a sort of corporate welfare. It will not be surprising if the Tuesday meeting in Dallas deteriorates into a standoff that pits the revenue "haves" and "have-nots" in separate corners. One general manager from a low-revenue club even joked Monday that the site of the meeting was appropriate, because the session could become a "Texas cage match." Indeed, it might take the commissioner's bolting the doors to the meeting room and instructing the owners that they can't leave until they reach an accord.

"This is," said one general manager, "no slam dunk."

Still, no matter what happens, it appears Upshaw has scored big points. Although he kept crying wolf every couple days, alternately drawing a line in the negotiating sand, then scuffing it out every time the league sought an extension to the talks, it is the NFLPA proposal that is moving forward. And if the deal is short-circuited by owners, the union can argue to its rank-and-file that it did its best.

As for Tagliabue, he has shepherded the NFL through some tough times. He was the prime catalyst for hammering out landmark television packages. His vision for where teams had to get to in terms of local revenues fueled a generation of spectacular new stadiums. And he has exhibited, during his 17-season tenure, more social conscience than did Pete Rozelle.

But unlike his predecessor, Tagliabue is not regarded, even within ownership ranks, as a strong consensus builder. In his defense, Tagliabue has been forced to try to forge a consensus on key matters from a much tougher ownership crowd. The past few months have demonstrated that the all-for-one spirit that marked the NFL is flagging. The ranks of the old-guard owners are fading and the new bunch is more concerned, and in some cases justifiably so, with issues like debt service and wider profit margins and T-shirt sales.

Time was when some owners would remain steadfastly mainstream, just rubber-stamping whatever bit of legislation Rozelle or Tagliabue put in front of them. But that time now seems a long time ago.

The environment is a far different one than when Tagliabue took over. The breakdown of negotiations over the past week could signal that the league will be even more dramatically different when he is gone. And if he can't sell the fractious ownership in Dallas on ratifying the extension to the CBA, that almost certainly will be the case.

When the owners convene Tuesday, certainly for one of the most critical caucuses in recent years, they will do so with the perception that Walt Kelly and Pogo might have been correct.

Because with the ball volleyed squarely into their court by the decision to present the NFLPA proposal to the full membership, a veto of the deal, and in essence a repudiation of Tagliabue's expected endorsement of it, will definitely suggest that they have seen the enemy and it is them.

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