League, players must find route up middle


Three more years of labor peace, and the NFL will have gone a quarter-century without a work stoppage.

But don't buy that anniversary cake just yet.

A lockout could be looming.

DeMaurice Smith, newly appointed executive director of the NFL Players Assn., said as much Monday in a visit to Indianapolis Colts training camp. He told reporters he expects team owners to lock out the players when the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2010 season.

Tough talk? Maybe. But that doesn't mean it isn't true.

Smith and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell are heading into the biggest test of their relatively young careers, charged with solving a financial Rubik's Cube their predecessors couldn't.

If it were just a matter of pleasing Goodell and Smith, they could probably roll up their sleeves, latch the meeting-room door, and work out a deal. The thing is, they have to satisfy their constituencies -- and prove to their people they made the other side suffer.

It's all about money, of course, and neither side is willing to budge an inch.

The players want more and they think they should reap some benefits from the soaring value of franchises.

The owners, meanwhile, feel they've given more than their share. They've doled out astronomical salaries while writing gargantuan checks to service the debt on their sparkling new stadiums. The players aren't writing those checks.

What's more, the owners are so unhappy with the current arrangement, they voted unanimously to opt out of it at their earliest opportunity. That 2006 deal was cobbled together in the eleventh hour by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and is now seen as one of the few failures in his otherwise illustrious career. The owners can't complain about it too much -- they did vote for it, after all -- but they won't go for a similar deal again, not one that gives the players so much.

Last year, in explaining the decision to bail out of the CBA early, the league said it was spending almost $4.5 billion on player costs. The owners complained the deal didn't adequately address the cost of building stadiums or rookie salaries and kept them from recouping bonuses from players who broke their contracts.

Now, sensitive to getting jammed into an unfavorable deal, the owners aren't going to buy the argument there's so much money at stake they must make whatever sacrifice is necessary to ensure there's NFL football on fall Sundays. They heard that argument from Tagliabue. They now know there are certain arrangements they just can't (or won't) abide.

For his part, Goodell has to bring an agreement back that attracts at least 24 of 32 votes. As well as he's done so far, setting a higher bar for personal conduct among players, this will be his biggest test in the eyes of some owners.

Smith has to step into each of the 32 locker rooms with a new deal in hand, and explain how he left nothing on the negotiating table. And he doesn't have the long track record of enriching players the way the late Gene Upshaw did. This will be Smith's defining moment.

Meanwhile, all of this is set to happen against the worst possible backdrop for both sides, a weakened economy filled with football fans who are worried about their own jobs and putting food on the table. To them, the NFL labor fight is nothing more than greedy owners versus spoiled players.

So if there is a work stoppage, it could be especially damaging to a league that has built its success on revenue sharing and labor peace. Remember, during the NFL's run of unparalleled prosperity, there have been strikes or lockouts in the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball.

Both sides in the NFL fight have serious leverage. The average player has a very short career span, about 3 1/2 seasons. If he is locked out for a season, or even half of one, that's a lot of earning potential out the window. Even if he's preserving his body, he's getting older by the day. Players want to play.

Owners have to pay off their palatial stadiums. It's hard to pay the bills with swap meets and monster-truck rallies. It's also hard to keep enthusiastic fans through a work stoppage.

Finding a common ground will be incredibly difficult.

After a deal finally does come together, and fans are assured there will be NFL games for years to come, two constants will survive:

Players will still think they're not getting enough. And owners will still think they're paying too much.




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