DeMaurice Smith


If you thought Thursday was the biggest day so far in the four-plus-month NFL labor melodrama — and it clearly was — get ready for another unpredictable 48 hours or so that might just dwarf it in terms of significance.

The next two days will be a Humpty Dumpty-like exercise, with the principals involved in these negotiations furiously trying to put the pieces back together of a conditional collective bargaining agreement that wound up being way more conditional than anyone had an inkling to expect.

What happened to all that recent communication, those positive, optimistic vibes and the building sense of trust between the league owners and its players? All of that got washed nearly down the drain in the span of a couple tumultuous hours Thursday afternoon and evening, as the owners resoundingly approved a CBA proposal and then sat back and watched the players just as resoundingly reject it.

At least for now.

It made for yet another sobering twist in this money-fueled saga, and if this is the way the owners and players choose to renew their vows to each other in a marriage that really can’t be ended, I would guess both sides still have plenty of work to do on the issue of commitment. It is a relationship being viewed at its worst possible moment, and it’s plain ugly.

Strip away all the details of this long and messy negotiation, and set aside for the moment who gets what and who still wants more, it’s crystal clear that the two sides still don’t have a reservoir of trust in one another. If they did, Thursday’s rollercoaster ride wouldn’t have unfolded like it did, with all those displays of shadow boxing by the so-called business partners, the silly stalling tactics employed by the players side, and the element of you-blink-first gamesmanship practiced by the owners. By the end of the night, we were back to March-level rhetoric being espoused by the players, even though late July has arrived. That’s helpful.

And where did all the last-minute maneuvering and intrigue get the NFL and its players, except for further apart than they’ve been for more than a month now, ever since signs of progress toward a deal started appearing in early to mid-June? In a negotiation where the constant mantra has been “There’s more work to be done,” guess what summation seems to fit best Friday morning? Correct. There’s more work to be done.

That’s why the next two days are truly crucial if there is to be a labor agreement before training camps are scheduled to open. The coming hours present a clear-cut test of leadership for the two sides, and more than ever NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith must take control of the bodies they represent and find a way to bring them together. Once and for all. Or at least long enough to sign the binding document and put this sorry chapter in league history to bed. That’s a significant part of what leadership is about, and a big reason they got their jobs and the big bucks that come with them. It’s time Roger and De earned their big titles.

If anyone thinks their side will benefit from this financial stand-off extending well into August or beyond, they’re wrong. The players will lose. The owners will lose. And the game will lose. Dollars and fans. The two things that both sides should care the most about. Because you can’t have one without the other.

The players and their leadership have to stop being so ridiculously paranoid, and dead certain that the owners are trying to screw them or pull a fast one. And the owners and their leadership have to stop being unaware of the fact that the players never react well when they feel they’re being pressured into any particular decision or timetable, even if in reality they aren’t, and it’s only their perception that they are. Perception always matters, often far more than reality.

There are elements of Thursday’s bizarre turn of events that just make no sense to me, no matter how much backstory I hear. How is it that everyone seemed to be on the same page regarding the negotiating timetable needed to save the entire four weeks of the full preseason schedule, but then when the owners seemingly met that timetable and voted on their half of the deal, the players reacted like the whole effort was a rushed and thrown-together affair that didn’t correspond to their timetable? Were you two even really talking to one another on those phones and at those negotiation sessions?

How is it that anyone can seriously think or propose that in this day and age that it has to take up to two weeks for the players to recertify as a union? Just because that timeline helps support the thesis that the NFLPA decertified in a thoughtful and sober manner back in March, and might have to again in some future labor negotiation, doesn’t make it a plausible explanation. It’s transparently ridiculous. What happened to the “Let us Play” chant that the players side trumpeted back in January and February? Apparently they’re not in as big a rush to get back on the field as they first portrayed, because all those signature cards have to be hand collected.

Let’s see what comes if the players do indeed vote on the owners’ proposal on Friday, as has been reported. Let’s see if either side can see the forest for the trees. The owners seem to be offering a pretty good deal to the players on many fronts, but the players say there are unresolved issues of import to them, and they want more concessions in several areas. That’s fine. Negotiate the final points and finish the deal, getting to that elusive ground where both sides can walk away and feel semi-good about themselves and what they accomplished.

But finish it. Now. In the coming few days. Get over the emotion of Thursday’s drama and put the 2011 season back on track for August and beyond. Otherwise the pieces may prove too difficult to even pick up the next time. Humpty Dumpty style.