With deal, union and optimism gone, so too is civility

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- We are at war.

Those aren't my words. They're the words of NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith in a New York Times profile in January, and the guy knew what he was talking about.

That's because the NFL and its players union no longer are talking. They are at war.

The NFLPA broke off collective-bargaining discussions Friday and filed for decertification, with 10 players -- including quarterbacks Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning -- suing the league in federal court. The league responded by imposing a lockout, and if you haven't guessed the next move you haven't been paying attention.

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It won't be by either party. It will be by the courts, which now become central figures in a messy argument that threatens to last months and could affect the 2011 season.

There's a war going on, all right. Only it's litigation vs. negotiation.

The NFL tried negotiation, and it didn't work. After 16 days of mediation, the league and its players union couldn't even agree on when the NFL was notified of the players association's intentions to decertify. The league said it was 4 p.m. The union said an hour later. It doesn't matter. What does is that these two can't just get along.

At the heart of their battle is the sharing of $9.3 billion in annual revenue. The league already gets a $1 billion credit but sought an additional $1 billion -- or 18 percent less for players -- that became $325 million after last-minute maneuvering Friday. In essence, owners proposed that the two sides split an estimated $650 million -- down from the original $1 billion -- and do it evenly, or an estimated $325 million apiece.

The players said no can-do.

But that's not all. According to Jeff Pash, the league's executive vice president/general counsel, the league also pitched a hard rookie cap; a guarantee of up to $1 million of a player's salary a year after injury; a five-week reduction in offseason programs; an increase in the days off for players as well as a limit to contact drills in and out of season; additional funding for retired players and a 16-game schedule for the next two years -- with an 18-game format beginning in 2013 only possible with the consent of players.

The NFLPA rejected the offers and did what it threatened to do last week, which was to decertify to allow individual players to file antitrust action against the NFL. Not to be outdone, the league fired back -- doing what it threatened to do for weeks, which is to lock out players.

Essentially, that means they can't work out at facilities or contact coaches, trainers, physicians, you name it, any members of the league or its clubs -- which seems appropriate since their union and owners aren't talking anyway.

"We're discouraged, we're frustrated, we're disappointed, but we're not giving up," Pash said. "We know this will be resolved in the negotiating process."

I'm glad someone does. Because the negotiating process has us where we are now, which is in the litigation process. An NFLPA spokesman said he anticipates that no legal decision will be forthcoming for an estimated three to four weeks, which means there will be nothing but rhetoric and exhibition baseball in between.

"This is a time for our fans not to be discouraged," said Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, a member of the NFL's labor committee. "I view it as a bump in the road."

Me? I want to see what he views as a pothole. It's never good when two sides aren't talking, and it can be worse when courts become involved. Decisions are appealed, and appeals are appealed and I think you can see where this could be headed -- which is a long, hot summer without a CBA and a regular season that could be threatened.

I'm not saying that happens, but I've always maintained it was important to complete talks by mid-April, or prior to the April 28 draft. If that doesn't happen -- and you tell me why anyone should be optimistic now -- there's no urgency to settle, which means talks could go nowhere for months.

The league didn't want this. The players didn't want this. But they have it, and let's call it what it is. They are at war.

After breaking off negotiations, Smith apologized to fans, saying they "deserve better" and that players "left everything they had at the table." He pointed out that the union made a proposal that would've slowed down cap growth so substantially that it could have saved the NFL $550 million of investment revenue over four years, and he painstakingly went through its salary-cap offers.

But what he didn't say was why the owners' latest proposal wasn't worth talking about and why an extension of Friday night's deadline -- which ended the CBA -- wasn't considered or exercised.

All I know is that owners made a last-minute retreat, and it wasn't enough. So players sought relief through the courts -- something owners contend they've been pushing all along, and maybe they're right.

I mean, why not? They gained leverage there a week ago when U.S. District Judge David Doty ruled in their favor, saying the NFL violated its agreement with the union by withholding $4 billion of TV money in escrow until the end of any lockout. Doty also ordered a hearing, yet to be determined, that could inflict damages.

The NFLPA needed ammunition, and Doty gave it to them. So why couldn't it happen again? If this really is war, as Smith said, then it's time to choose your weapons and strategies, and maybe, just maybe, the NFLPA figures its chances of success are better in the courts than they are at the bargaining table with NFL owners.

We're about to find out.

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