It's not a billion dollars or 18-game schedule or a rookie salary cap that keeps the NFL and its players from a peaceful settlement. Nope, it's trust. Neither side trusts the other, which is why the courts have been asked to intervene.
I'm serious. These guys can't even agree when the Players Association stopped being a union last Friday. The NFL said it was notified at 4 p.m. The players said it was 5:02 sharp, and why does it matter? Because it's another example of two sides with conflicting versions of the same story.
But when you ask why they don't trust each other, don't start there. Go to the contentious issue of "financial transparency," which players have been pushing for nearly two years. They want the NFL to open its books to justify its demands, and the NFL has said it will -- only with a third party, which the players view as a no can-do.
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So talks dissolve, the union decertifies, the league initiates a lockout and let the litigation begin.
Players insist the league planned years for a lockout. Owners insist players never wanted to negotiate. I don't know that either is accurate, but I do know neither trusts the other -- and, yeah, that's what the NFL's first labor stoppage in 24 years is all about.
Owners insist they couldn't live with the past CBA because the acceleration of costs is beginning to outrun the pace of revenues. So they want something better, and what they want is a new collective bargaining agreement that initially included an additional $1 billion in cost credits.
Naturally, players were skeptical. They see a $9-billion business that is growing and just produced a Super Bowl with its best ratings ever and wonder: What's the problem? So they want answers. They want evidence. In short, they want the owners' books.
Fair enough. As executive director DeMaurice Smith said, if you're going to write a $1 billion check you want more than someone's word he needs it. I get it, especially after U.S. District Court Judge David Doty ruled the NFL acted against players' interests when it failed to maximize revenues from TV network deals.
But the NFL has offered something more than its word. It agreed to have a mutually acceptable neutral party inspect its team-by-team financial statements for the past five years, and, I don't know, but that sounds fair to me. Players squelched the idea, and I can only presume, but maybe it's because they don't trust team-audited statements or maybe it's because they wanted 10 years of documents, not five.
Get real, guys: You think multi-million dollar operations aren’t hiring high-powered accounting firms to do line-by-line reviews? I understand players' apprehension, but to say that you don't trust experienced CPAs means you've got bigger problems than not trusting ownership.
Look, NFL teams carry enormous debts because they borrow enormous sums of money. But you can't acquire millions of dollars from lenders without supplying audited financial statements. To suggest that those statements aren't comprehensive or, worse, might be compromised is to suggest that NFL owners are little more than crooks.
So if financial statements are legit, then what's the problem in having them turned over to players? Ah, there's where the league's distrust of the other side kicks in. Some clubs are more profitable -- enormously more profitable --- than others, and, frankly, if I'm the NFL I don't want players knowing who makes the most, who makes the least and how they're doing it. I'm sorry, I don't. Essentially, I don't want union employees second-guessing employers' expenditures because that's not how successful businesses are run.
And that's what this is all about, people. Business. Players can talk all they want about how the league reneged on its "partnership" with them, but at the end of the day there's no partnership here. There is a business, with employers and employees. The NFL is the employer, and the players are the employees. Simple as that. Plus, the average career span of these employees is 3.4 years each.
Smith said players offered $1 billion in cash to owners in exchange for an equity position in the league or its properties, then acted surprised when the league indicated it wasn't interested. Please. Tell me when it's ever a good idea for management and unions to partner. United Airlines tried it with its pilots, machinists and bag handlers, and that didn't turn out so well, did it?
Smith also said that what players were offering was no different than "companies all across America" that "turn to their employees to become vested partners in their business." Sorry, but, yes, it is because the NFL is not like companies all across America. It is not a publicly-traded enterprise.
Furthermore, it has no interest in having its employees become vested partners because -- let me repeat this again -- one side here is management, the other is a union, or what was once a union. By definition, the two are adversaries. They're not partners. Adversaries don't trust each other, and look no farther than these talks for proof.
"This is a business," said Smith shortly after talks broke off. "You've got two business partners, and on our side you play for 3.4 years, and on the other side you can take every economic indicator and pop them in a hat. And I would dare any one of you to pull out any economic indicator that would suggest that the National Football League has fallen on hard times.
"So with all due respect, the way two businesses should interact with one another is one based on trust and where trust if verified. For the last 14 days the National Football League has said, 'Trust us.' But when it came time for the verification they told us it was none of our business."
No they didn't. The NFL told players it trusted them as much as players trusted the league. At least that's something the two agree on.