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If there's an NFL season, Cohen may be unlikely hero

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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When President Obama nominated George H. Cohen as the 17th director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service on July 6, 2009, neither man likely had any notion that a year and a half later, Cohen would perhaps save the country's most popular sport from destroying itself. The nomination, later unanimously confirmed by the Senate, was buried by a squall of significant news. There was rioting in China, a terrible airline crash and a public memorial for Michael Jackson. Cohen was a blip, a buried paragraph, a sentence in a roundup. Now, the sports world revolves around him.

George Cohen's greatest accomplishment in these talks so far? Keeping both sides at the table. (AP)  
George Cohen's greatest accomplishment in these talks so far? Keeping both sides at the table. (AP)  
What Cohen has done is stunning. Even if the NFL's players and owners do end up annihilating each other, the fact he has gotten both sides to momentarily remove their fingers from the red buttons says a great deal about his abilities. Details about the bargaining sessions have been scarce, but some are starting to emerge. People with knowledge of the talks describe Cohen as a skilled orator who has been able to do the impossible: Get both sides to trust him.

"He's building a small amount of trust piece by piece," said one league official.

The sources say Cohen has taken several key steps to keep the NFL and players talking. First, he has mostly kept the groups of union and owner representatives small. This has kept the anger and polarization to a minimum and encouraged dialogue. Second, Cohen makes everyone in the room feel as if they have a say. No viewpoint is ignored, no suggestion tossed aside. Third, Cohen has kept the discussions focused on facts. There have been several times when both owners and players have misstated facts, and Cohen corrected them, a source said. Concentrating on actual facts instead of emotion has kept tempers low.

None of this means a deal will get done this coming week. Or this month. Or this year. But mediation was initially viewed as a joke, a stopgap until a lockout; the mediation rubber stamp, the mediation black hole, the Adjustment Bureau. Now, Cohen is in position to be the savior.

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In the NFL B.C. (Before Cohen), players and owners had practically turned arguing into a fetish. In the NFL A.C. (After Cohen), there's a chance a new collective bargaining agreement can be reached sooner rather than later.

It actually shouldn't be a shock that Cohen's had success. He knows the sports world intimately. He has worked for the MLB, NBA and NHL players association. Last year, he successfully mediated a labor dispute in Major League Soccer.

The Sports Business Journal wrote last March: "He played a major role in the history of sports labor when he represented the MLBPA before U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor, now a Supreme Court justice. 'He is the lawyer who argued before Judge Sotomayor the day she issued the injunction that ended the baseball strike of 1995,' said MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner."

How Cohen was able to get the trust of owners despite being a longtime union lawyer is one of the more interesting questions of this process. The answer, to be blunt, is still difficult to decipher. It will likely be many months until details about what happened during these negotiations are made public.

Again, it's still unlikely an agreement will be consummated this week, but Cohen has provided some hope. Every hour the two sides talk is hope. Every extension is hope, and it's because of Cohen.

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