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Labor peace already a memory as NFL-NFLPA differences intensify

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Roger Goodell finds himself getting more and more pushback from the NFLPA. (AP)  
Roger Goodell finds himself getting more and more pushback from the NFLPA. (AP)  

When the NFL and its players union last summer agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement, it was supposed to signal peace for the next 10 years ... only 10 months later, that peace is gone, replaced by a deep and uneasy distrust that threatens to polarize the two sides.

The latest example was Wednesday, when the NFL Players Association filed a collusion claim against the league, detailing a league "conspiracy" to circumnavigate the Reggie White settlement by allegedly imposing a secret $123 million salary cap for the 2010 season ... when there was no salary cap.

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That move follows Tuesday's pas de deux over knee and thigh pads. The NFL said it will mandate them for the 2013 season, while the NFLPA said it cannot, that changes like that must be collectively bargained with the union.

That, in turn, follows NFLPA complaints and grievances filed earlier this month that challenge commissioner Roger Goodell's suspensions of four players for their involvement in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal. In essence, the union believes Goodell overstepped his authority and should not be allowed to rule on appeals of punishments he imposed -- even though the CBA players ratified last summer authorizes him to do it.

I think you get the idea. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

"You don't expect all parties to agree at any point and time," Goodell said, "but you have to drive toward solutions. At some point you have to make some decisions about what is best for the game."

The decision to mandate knee and thigh pads is a perfect example. According to Goodell, the NFL and NFLPA had been talking for three years about more protection for players, but the dialogue was inconclusive. So the NFL decided to move forward, notifying the union that its cooperation and input are valued until the rule takes effect.

Uh, no-can-do, said the NFLPA, and here we go again.

"Three years of discussion," Goodell said. "Technology has advanced. In fact, the CEO of Nike recently told me that when they introduced the new uniforms that NBA players were wearing more pads from the hips down than NFL players.

"There is something wrong with that. We need to put that protection in. You can discuss all you want, but at some point you have to reach a conclusion."

The conclusion the NFLPA reached was that the league overstepped its authority ... again ... and so it fired off a response that said, "While the NFL is focused on one element of health and safety, the NFLPA believes that health and safety require a comprehensive approach and commitment."

The union's opposition was based on principle, with the NFLPA insisting that mandating protective pads is a change in working conditions, which means they must be collectively bargained -- an opinion the NFL does not share.

But that's how it goes these days, where relations between the two are so fractured that the New York Times' Judy Battista on Wednesday tweeted, "Is it possible the NFL and NFLPA were getting along better DURING the lockout than they are now?"

Uh, yeah, it is.

All I know is I remember both sides signed off on a provision for HGH testing. That was last summer. Since then, the NFL has said it's ready to move forward, and the NFLPA has said it's not.

Welcome to their world.

"If you look at the tension, and you look at the natural angst," said Dallas owner Jerry Jones, "it's not surprising that you have 'us' and 'them' a lot -- just by the very nature of things. You can have a well-meaning issue, but you have differences of opinion as to how you work it out. That's part of a labor agreement. It doesn't surprise me at all that we have labor issues."

It doesn't surprise me, either. Employer-employee relationships are often by nature adversarial. But it's one thing to have occasional differences; it's another to engage in frequent public disputes over wide-ranging issues.

The rapport, understanding and cooperation that were there when Paul Tagliabue was NFL commissioner and Gene Upshaw was the NFLPA executive director seem absent now, replaced instead by a distrust so deep that Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison last summer called Goodell "a crook" and "the devil."

"I hate him," he said in the August issue of Men's Journal, "and will never respect him."

Granted, that's James Harrison, and his opinions can be -- how shall I put this? -- extreme. But that lack of respect for Goodell and the league office seems to run deep -- so much so that when the NFL announced its intention to mandate thigh and knee pads, at least two of the San Diego Chargers told the Union-Tribune they aren't sure they'll comply.

Of course, they're not. Players and owners are as far apart as they were this time last year.

"It's not something that is unexpected," Jones said. "That's just the nature of it. You have a lot of things that go into club/player, coach/player [issues], the kind of thing that CBA addresses. You can't legislate some of the things that can come up, and those have to be worked through. And they will be.

"They have been in the past and they're getting worked through now. It's not always a good day there. But ultimately, we know we have to do what's in the best interests of fans to keep the NFL as exciting and as popular as it is, and we will most certainly do what's in the best interests of the players and the clubs."

That's a matter of perspective. What's not is that these two sides don't seem to get along.

"Our relationship is exactly what it's supposed to be," said a source close to the union, "especially when our interests are not aligned on issues that matter to our players or when things like collusion take place in our game."

But that relationship seems to be growing more hostile, which doesn’t exactly foreshadow future cooperation. Only 10 months ago center Jeff Saturday stood on the steps of the union's headquarters in Washington, D.C. and embraced New England owner Robert Kraft. I can't imagine that happening today.

"How would you characterize your relationship with the NFLPA?" Goodell was asked Tuesday.

"I don't characterize things very often," he said. "We continue to address the issues. We don't always agree, but we seek a resolution on those. Sometimes we will reach a consensus, and sometimes we won't. If that is the outcome, that is the outcome."

No, that is the problem.

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