In NFL labor fight, a books review means a lot

On one side are NFL owners saying they couldn’t possibly be more forthcoming.

On the other side are players saying they’re being denied the information they need to make a reasonable decision.

The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Transparency is the buzzword in this round of the NFL labor fight, with the owners sticking by their long-standing policy of not opening their financial books — at least not completely — and the players demanding to see every line-by-line expense.

The NFL Players Assn. on Wednesday went back to U.S. District Judge David Doty, who ruled in their favor in a pivotal case last week, in an attempt to unseal financial information the league wants to keep confidential.

DeMaurice Smith, NFLPA executive director, said that what the NFL has provided so far would be “utterly meaningless in determining whether to write an $800-million check” to the owners each year. (That he said $800 million and not $1 billion — the amount the owners had been asking players to credit them — might indicate movement on that issue.)


Jeff Pash, the NFL’s top attorney and lead negotiator, said the financial information the union is being offered is “unparalleled” and “far more than has ever been disclosed, and we’ve offered to give them information that we don’t even give to our clubs.

“Has it gotten everything it wants? Evidently not. Have we offered to provide more? Absolutely. And is it a subject that we’re prepared to discuss? Absolutely.”

Both sides have a reasonable argument, and neither is likely to budge before the negotiating deadline when Friday turns to Saturday on the East Coast.

The owners say they’re not making enough money to take the risks necessary to make the league grow. So they want the players to credit them, apparently, $800 million — in addition to the $1 billion they already take off the top — before the rest of the money is divided 60-40 in favor of the players.

The players are saying: We don’t believe you. We think the league has done just fine on our backs. Prove to us you’re hurting, and do what the NFL has never done: Pry open those books so we can get a good long look.

That certainly strikes a chord in a world where CEO is a four-letter word, and where those owners just lost in Doty’s court for striking some sketchy-looking TV deals loaded with lockout insurance.

The NFL, in turn, has opened its books wider than it ever has for players, and insists that the Players Assn. has more than enough information to get an HDTV-quality picture of the financial situation.

Those players know to the penny teams’ biggest expense — the cost of players themselves — and they know the revenues. What they don’t know is how much Owner X pays his son for twiddling his thumbs, or how many times Owner Y uses the team jet to fly his family to Hawaii. Yes, there’s potential embarrassment in line-by-line expense disclosure. Just ask the McCourts.

But what’s at the heart of this argument? Can owners really solve things by releasing every gory detail? Will players agree to everything once they see those spreadsheets?

Of course not. The union wants to see those financials, but this is also about leverage. The owners want to maintain their privacy — and there’s a good argument for that — and the players know that it’s a weakness in the NFL’s case. Privacy will come at a price, and that likely will further chip away at that $800-million demand.

There’s also this: The NFL’s books are not hemorrhaging red ink. In fact, teams are likely to be making a lot of money. But remember, the argument of owners is that the current business model doesn’t allow them to make enough money to take on the risk of new stadiums, international play and greater investments in new-media opportunities.

That’s a more difficult argument to prove, and a tough sell to the players — no matter how wide those books open.