Can the NFL Hard-Liners Reach an Agreement?

Yeah, the NFL players and owners are still talking, but a deal is anything but imminent

There’s a scene in The Godfather when Sonny Corleone, in a lather because of the attempted assassination of his father, the Don, is confronted by Tom Hagen, who pleads for patience. Lusting for revenge and in no mood for temperance, Sonny berates his adopted brother.

“If I had a wartime consigliere, a Sicilian, I wouldn’t be in this shape. Pop had Genco [Abbandando]. Look what I got.”

As we know, Sonny’s legendary temper leads him to a gruesome death at a toll plaza, paving the way for the rise of Michael, who is more calculating and brutally pragmatic than the emotional Sonny.

Last Friday in Washington, D.C., the 32 “dons” of the National Football League agreed to continue their mediated bargaining with the Players Association, in an attempt to broker a labor agreement that will prevent a short-term end to football. After two years of posturing and doing everything but arm-wrestling over the pact, there was some movement late last week on substantive issues, giving fans hope and spawning the extension that will continue negotiations throughout the coming week.

Since this is the first time the quest for a collective bargaining agreement features a big public-relations component—both sides are trying to gain fans’ support—the continued negotiations could be a PR ploy. While the progress, however small, is a good sign, both sides are still committed to winning the day, and neither is interested in having Tom Hagen representing it.

The owners and players all believe Hagen-like characters did their previous bidding. Hard-line owners feel former commissioner Paul Tagliabue gave away too much in 2006 when he allotted 59 percent of gross revenues to players. And players, despite what was definitely an advantageous deal, never completely backed the late Gene Upshaw because of his chummy relationship with Tagliabue. Both Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith have more in common with Genco Abbandando, Don Vito Corleone’s longtime Sicilian advisor, than they do with the more mild-mannered Hagen.

That’s where the dread creeps in for fans. The extension is good news, but the goals of the two sides remain as straightforward and intractable as ever. The owners may have given back a little of the money they tried to shield from the players, but the thought that they’ll surrender much more is unreasonable. They are still angry Tagliabue gave up so much in ’06 and want to “win” this CBA, even if that means taking a short-term hit in return for long-term profit.

The players, meanwhile, understand they negotiated a good deal five years ago but are not willing to leave the bargaining table without much better post-retirement health benefits and some say in how an 18-game regular season would affect them. Though Upshaw did well on the money side of the last CBA, he and his lieutenants were never too interested in the plight of former players, perhaps because evidence of how repeated blows to the head lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s-like symptoms had not surfaced. Whatever the case, Smith is charged with protecting current, former and future players and has sounded every bit the hard-liner that Goodell and some of the more aggressive owners have.

When the negotiations begin again this week, fans will seek further hope from the kernels reporters can extract from gag-ruled participants. News that the owners gave back some money was good, but it could also be a tactic to make that side seem more sympathetic to football consumers in the event of a work stoppage. The owners could say, “Hey, we took a big step toward them, but they refused to budge off of their demands.” Even if that’s not true, it would put the players on the defensive in the image battle and could make them more vulnerable when negotiations resume.

The weeklong extension is reason for optimism, but fans would do well to remember that they may well want a full, normal 2011 season more than, say, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, whose annual debt service is about $50 million. Though Snyder might have to cut back on the Beluga were there an interruption, he would gladly deal with that in order to have extra money available to him in coming seasons. Even as franchise values skyrocket, league revenues climb (in 2005, the league grossed $6 billion; last year, that total was $9 billion) and pro football becomes more and more popular, the owners aren’t satisfied. That’s why they chose a football lifer like Goodell, rather than a conciliator like Tagliabue. You won’t see him happily chatting up Smith.

The same goes for the players, who wanted someone who didn’t feel he owed the league anything, as many believed Upshaw felt because of his long career with the Raiders. They want someone who isn’t interested in making friends, and Smith’s tough-guy act has represented that point of view.

The sides have their wartime consiglieres, and they also have their extension. Let’s see if the hard-liners can come to an agreement, or if the 2011 NFL season ends up getting sprayed by lead outside of a tollbooth.


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