NFL labor talks: mystery and flickers of hope

Like millions of football fans, Cris Collinsworth is at least somewhat encouraged by the string of not-so-secret meetings over the past two weeks between NFL owners and players, sessions aimed at hammering out a labor agreement as the 2011 season hangs in the balance.

But Collinsworth is a realist, too, a former Cincinnati receiver who played in the past two strike-shortened seasons, later got his law degree, and now works with Al Michaels as NBC’s top color commentator. Hopeful as he is about the rumored progress being made, Collinsworth still believes it’s most likely that at least some games will be scrubbed.

“My history of negotiating with the owners in general has been that they want you to prove you’re willing to walk away from a paycheck,” he said Thursday in a phone interview. “If you’re a draft pick, they want to know if you’re willing to miss the first week of training camp to make a better deal.

“The owners tend to hold their best offer until there’s a deadline of some kind.”


That theory was again put to the test this week as a group of owners and players convened for two days of so-called secret meetings outside New York City, following up on three days of similar meetings the previous week in Minnesota. Although NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the decertified players’ union, took part in the talks, lawyers from both sides were not asked to participate.

Those developments have brought flickers of hope that there will be some type of resolution that will save the season. The players are currently locked out as both sides await a ruling from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which could overturn the lockout-lifting ruling of a lower court.

New England quarterback Tom Brady, among the named plaintiffs in the players’ antitrust suit against the league, said last week that he’s encouraged by the recent meetings.

“There has been a lot of positive news from both sides,” Brady said last Friday while attending a charity event in Boston, according to ESPN. “There has been a lot of positive news from both sides. Everyone is working hard for a great outcome. I’m confident that a lot of reasonable people will come to a very reasonable agreement. ... Hopefully there is a great outcome. I’m relatively confident that there will be.”

According to a report Thursday by the New York Post, Goodell and Smith met for a private dinner the night before at a Manhattan restaurant. The meal lasted two hours and, as an unnamed witness told the newspaper, it appeared to be a “very jovial dinner.”

From the outside, that’s what these negotiations have become: an exercise in reading tea leaves.

“Everything gets played at this point, every reaction,” Collinsworth said. “Every time a single owner or single player says something, it gets read into by the other side — ‘Are we giving up too much?’ It’s really hard to make a deal.”

Collinsworth, for one, isn’t waiting around for pro football. He’s accepted a job as a volunteer receivers coach at Highlands High School in northern Kentucky, where he’ll be working with his younger son, Jac, and others. As long as the lockout is in place, Collinsworth plans to continue coaching at the school.


“In my heart of hearts, I think [the NFL is] going to miss some games,” he said. “But they could settle it at the end of this phone call. Nobody knows.”