Commentary

Goodell facing another uphill climb

Looming labor situation will test commissioner's mettle

Originally Published: July 10, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Earlier this week, Roger Goodell reached the summit of Mount Rainier, one of the most prominent peaks in this country's 48 contiguous states.

But scaling the 14,411-foot volcano, which includes having to contend with some of the most perilous glaciers in the entire world, might have been just a warm-up to what is ahead for the NFL commissioner in the coming months.

With the NFL and the players' association already balancing tenuously on a slippery slope, the commissioner must still successfully negotiate an extension to the collective bargaining agreement, or contend with an uncapped season in 2010 and the prospect of a lockout in 2011.

Those labor talks, by comparison, could make Mount Rainier look like a molehill.

At a time when the off-field indiscretions and questionable judgments of a few players command headlines, and with training camps scheduled to open in about a month, the ongoing CBA discussions with NFLPA officials figuratively represent the commissioner's Mount Everest of a challenge.

In his two years on the job, Goodell has correctly assigned priority status to significant issues such as player behavior, substance abuse, diversity and the NFL's ongoing initiative for further globalizing its product. His adept handling of most of those matters was aimed at protecting the integrity of the game. But the CBA takes precedence over everything else, because the absence of an extension, and the work stoppage that might result from it, could produce some dire ramifications.

It would leave the league, at least temporarily, without a game whose integrity requires the commissioner's protection.

The NFL survived work stoppages in 1982 and 1987 (when the owners ill-advisedly staged "replacement games"), and that was a generation ago, before the league enjoyed its present status. Given its current pre-eminence, the NFL would almost certainly get through a lockout as well.

But not without some scars.

Part of the NFL's exponential growth over the past two decades is that it is the only professional sport that has not suffered a work stoppage during that period. With a generation of cooperation between the NFL and players, labor peace has been all but taken for granted by the fans. There is little doubt the league would fill stadiums again after a lockout, and would likely enjoy healthy television ratings, but there would still be some residual pain and dented feelings. And it's believed that neither side wants to empirically divine the degree of that kind of hurt.

It's na´ve and short-sighted to suggest that even the powerful NFL could quickly recover from a work stoppage. And Goodell is neither na´ve nor short-sighted; if anything, the commissioner is rooted in pragmatism.

A work stoppage probably wouldn't be ruinous to the NFL, but it certainly would ruin a lot of Sunday afternoons.

Said one AFC owner: "We're damned if we do [initiate a lockout], and we're doomed if we don't."

For obvious reasons, the league and its players would prefer to remain unscathed, but that might be a pretty difficult feat to accomplish. Goodell has done his best to downplay the possibility of a lockout, but there has been considerable saber-rattling by his constituency, the owners. The commissioner's counterpart, new NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, has pretty much relied on the same well-rehearsed mantra: He hopes for a peaceful resolution, but is also prepared for war, if that option is necessary.

Former NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw claimed repeatedly that there would be no givebacks by the players. Pittsburgh backup quarterback Charlie Batch reportedly told the assembled rookies during their recent symposium that there is a "100 percent chance" of a lockout in 2011. If the league plays an uncapped season in 2010, a scenario some misguided players feel will be a boon to their compensation, the NFL will find it hard to stuff the salary-cap genie back in the bottle. And an uncapped season in 2010 will likely lead to a work stoppage the following year.

Ominously, both sides have begun to amass deep war chests. The players, according to NFLPA officials, have stashed away a $210 million strike fund. The owners' contingency is in the 10-figure category, and in its recent extensions with CBS and Fox, and its deal with DirecTV, the league has included provisions to be paid even if there is a lockout two years from now.

A recent NFLPA study claims the owners will collectively lose $150 million in non-recoverable expenses if there is a lockout. For owners hustling to cut deals with state-sponsored lotteries, some worth between only $1 million and $2 million per year in revenues, $150 million is a lot of money.

Think about this: Only 40 months ago, owners approved the most recent CBA extension by a lopsided 30-2 vote. Now the owners realize that they cut a hasty and bad deal, and they can't wait to get out from under it.

Some observers used to feel that the relationship between former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Upshaw was a little too cozy, and that under their respective stewardships, the league and players really did become a partnership. No one has yet accused Goodell and Smith of being overly chummy, but the two men must locate a relatively common ground for the good of everyone involved

In any climate, there exists a subset of people who resent player salaries and feel that no one is worth the big money in his paycheck. In this poor economic climate, that subset will become more pronounced.

When owners originally approved a six-year CBA extension in 2006, an initiative that many insist was railroaded through by the retiring Tagliabue, the initial perception was that the business relationship between the NFL and its players would continue for at least that period. But like the leftover Chinese takeout that's been relegated to the back of the refrigerator for a couple of weeks, Tagliabue presented Goodell with an issue that could prompt indigestion. He should have left him a bottle of Pepto-Bismol instead.

The 2006 deal included an opt-out provision, one that could be exercised by either side, and owners last year chose to void the final two years of an accord that was to run through the 2012 season.

That move precipitated the possibility of an uncapped season in 2010, and a potential lockout by owners in 2011. Owners have said that the current system, which provides players with about 60 percent of the designated gross revenues, is an unsustainable model. But will they dig in the heels of their Gucci loafers and risk the backlash of a lockout to reduce salaries? That's the $64 million -- or, if you believe the NFLPA study, more like the $150 million -- question with which Goodell must wrestle.

"You have to overcome your doubts of whether you can do it," Goodell acknowledged earlier this week.

The commissioner was speaking, of course, of his grueling trek up Mount Rainier.

But he could have been referring just as easily to the difficulty that lies ahead in the critical CBA negotiations.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.