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Time for Goodell to build bridges, unify owners

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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After NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in 2010 pushed through a modified sudden-death overtime proposal that had lukewarm support among owners and general managers, Sports Illustrated hailed him as a "consensus-building diplomat" and compared him to former commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Rozelle was the quintessential deal-maker, a guy who knew how to work a room to get what he wanted and wouldn't stop lobbying until he had the votes -- a quality Goodell demonstrated years later when he pushed through a proposal head coaches opposed.

So what? So, now more than ever, Goodell needs to work the room again.

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Only this time the stakes are bigger, much bigger. Instead of unifying owners behind a rules change, Goodell must unify them behind a negotiating strategy that can and will bring a labor agreement to save the 2011 season -- preseason included.

Yeah, I know, I believe that will happen. So do most of the coaches and GMs I trust. They anticipate that sometime by mid-to-late July a breakthrough occurs, the lockout is lifted and the NFL is back in business, with the expectation that training camps open by early August, at the latest.

But they always hedge, and it's easy to see why: First of all, we must hear from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on a motion to overrule an earlier injunction lifting the lockout, though the expectation is that it will. Second, team owners who meet Tuesday apparently aren't unified on revenue-sharing issues that caused them to opt out of the 2006 collective bargaining agreement.

And that's where Goodell comes in.

There is nothing he can do to influence the court, and a decision could be forthcoming in the next week or two. But he can influence the league he oversees. In fact, I would suggest that as a "consensus-building diplomat," it's his duty.

In essence, his job now is to try to unify owners who are divided on issues that could cause labor negotiations to drag on through the summer.

Granted, that sounds easier than it is, but one reason Goodell was chosen for the job was because of his leadership qualities -- including his ability to strike a tough deal, which he demonstrated so deftly at last year's spring meetings when head coaches only a day before seemed to sabotage the new OT rule. Goodell simply waited until they went away, met with owners in a closed-door session, convinced them that change was good, then called for a vote.

The measure passed 28-4.

But that was the warmup to what we have now, and what we have now are owners who need to be shown what's right, what's reasonable and what's good for all. This is a league that was founded on sacrifice, with someone like former Giants owner Wellington Mara willing to share in revenues with small-market owners because ... well, because it made the league stronger. And the stronger the league was the stronger and more profitable its clubs became. Small market, big market, it didn't matter. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

That is a lesson that needs to be repeated and reinforced today, and it's time for Goodell to grab a megaphone. If he can push disinterested owners toward supporting a rules change he favors, he can try to push them toward backing a negotiating strategy that over the past three weeks seemed to produce more progress than the preceding three months.

I know, there is much work that is left, but at least there was movement and hope for a normal preseason and regular season. Some of that optimism was tempered by last week's news that owners are divided, one reason they've been asked to be prepared to stay overnight in Chicago on Tuesday.

But the NFL has no chance of reaching a deal if it can't unify its owners, and first things first: Before returning to the negotiating table, the league's ownership must get its act together, with small-market and big-market owners united on key core economic issues.

That was a problem in 2006, and owners later opted out of an agreement they didn't perceive as fair. So now we're back where we began, only this time it's with a lockout that goes on and on and with the presiding judge at the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals urging owners and players to settle their differences outside of court.

That's a great idea, only owners must settle their differences among themselves first. That's what they hope to do this week in Chicago, and if they can't reach a consensus among themselves I know just the guy they should call.

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