Players must take all time they need to make sure deal's right

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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ATLANTA -- Don't tell me there isn't precedent for what NFL owners did Thursday, because there is. In fact, the last time the two sides couldn't reach an agreement on a new CBA, a similar squeeze play was pulled.

And it was then-NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw who pulled it.

That was 2006, when a frustrated and impatient Upshaw presented owners a take-it-or-leave-it offer before flying off to meetings with his executive board in Hawaii. Owners were given two days to ratify the offer after Upshaw and then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue agreed there would be no further negotiations, and, after much debate, they signed off on a long-term deal.

Of course, two years later, the owners opted out of it -- one reason they're where they are now -- and there's a lesson there for players today. If there's a hang-up with the owners' plan, it's not in how it was presented. Heck, players pulled the same move five years ago. Nope, it's in the time players have to react. There's not much of it before they're asked for their approval.

But here's the difference: Where the 2006 offer was a take-it-or-leave-it deal, owners insist this one is not. Moreover, they say that virtually all of its contents have been negotiated -- with general counsel Jeff Pash maintaining that "there are no surprises in there." Nevertheless, they say they're open to discussion on items that players might consider contentious or worthy of more talk.

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"It's hardly a take-it-or-leave-it offer," said Pash. "It's a fully negotiated agreement. We went through weeks and weeks and weeks of discussions, meeting with the principals and then with the attorneys. What we're hoping the union will ratify and go forward with is what we have bargained. It's a fully bargained agreement on all the critical issues -- the draft, salary cap, free agency, franchise player rules, work rules, minimum salaries."

OK, but what happens if players aren't sold on its entirety?

"Tell us about it," said Pash. "We're not saying, 'Hey, we're going home.' We'll talk about it."

That contrasts to what happened the last time these two squabbled over a CBA. Then, Upshaw made it clear he was finished talking about a new deal. Either the owners approved what they were offered, or there would be an impasse.

But, as I said, there's a lesson there for everyone. Because just as it's OK for owners to make the first move, it's also OK for players to take their time reviewing a proposal that will remain in effect for the next 10 years. Remember now, this is a far-ranging proposal, one that excludes judicial oversight, a resolution of all pending litigation (the Tom Brady antitrust case and Judge David Doty damages decision) and a new compensation system for rookies.

But it also includes items that players believe should be part of a CBA, not an agreement, and there is a difference. You can enter into an accord without entering into a CBA, reserving potentially volatile issues like player conduct codes, club discipline and drug testing for bargaining after you sign off on the agreement. The NFL insists nothing will change in those areas, that they will be handled as they have in the past, but players charge that that sounds more like a CBA than it does an agreement.

It does, but remember what Pash said: "We'll talk about it."

The problem, of course, is that the players are on the clock, and that clock is running down. They can't return to work Saturday unless their executive board approves the terms of a settlement before then, and clubs won't open camps next Wednesday unless players can show evidence by next Tuesday that they have enough support to recertify as a union, a precursor to signing off on a new CBA.

The last labor dispute is a cautionary tale, with owners bailing out of their agreement only two years later -- which is why players should be cautious before they move here. But don't tell me they're under duress because NFL owners pulled a fast one. Impatient and pressed for time, they did only what the NFLPA did five years earlier -- only this time owners used the threat of losing preseason games (the Hall of Fame game is already gone) to make players move.

"It was an agreement that was the result of so much compromise on our part and their part," said Philadelphia owner Jeffrey Lurie. "It was the kind of thing that was a win-win for everybody.

"This was not one of those agreements where one side has any advantage whatsoever. It's a win for the sport. I know nobody in the [owners'] room was gleeful. It was a difficult and long negotiation, but always the thought was that we could get a 10-year agreement that was at least reasonable."

That's for the players to decide, and, yes, history has told us they should take their time before reaching that decision. Owners had a chance to opt out of their last deal. Players don't have that luxury now. So do what owners did not in 2006, and be cautious.

"The one thing about labor deals is that it's not a walk-away transaction," said Pash. "It's not like selling your house. We're going to be bound together. It's almost like a marriage."

All the more reason for players to make sure this move is the right one.

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