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A year after lockout's resolution, labor harmony looks anything but peaceful

by | National NFL Insider
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DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell were all smiles last summer when the lockout ended. (Getty Images)  
DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell were all smiles last summer when the lockout ended. (Getty Images)  

WASHINGTON -- The room is in the upper levels of the NFLPA headquarters. Off the elevator, past a welcome desk, and beyond the glass doors. This is where history took place.

It was a Monday, almost a year ago exactly, and the lockout had droned on for 4½ months. It seemed it might never end. Then a deal was struck by senior officials on both sides, but it was up to the player representatives to approve. They sat in this room, with its comfortable black leather chairs and white desks and, vote by vote, approved the deal. Lockout over. Season on.

To some, this will be an anniversary to forget. To others, like the players in particular, this will be an anniversary to remember. Mostly, to them, it's about lessons learned.

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"This is what we learned," said one player representative who was heavily involved in the negotiations with the owners, "we stood up to the owners but it came with a price."

In many ways, the players won their fight. David fought Goliath to a standstill, which counts as a victory. Players were able to get better health and safety standards, fewer concussion-causing practices and, perhaps most importantly, more money than any group of NFL players has ever made.

But that aforementioned price ... what players paid depends on which player you ask. Most players interviewed don't believe, as opposed to the common perception among the media and fans, that they should have fought harder during the lockout to take back some of the commissioner power. In fact, privately, players think the commissioner's power affects just one or two percent of the player base, and they actually don't mind Roger Goodell using his fists to punish those who are multiple offenders.

The price players say that was paid is complicated but palpable. The players left this negotiation without a definition of what exactly health and safety means for them. The violence of the sport and thousands of former NFL players now suing the league over concussions could drastically change everything about the NFL (and not in the distant future). Some players say the union isn't prepared for those possible changes. The truth is, no one may be prepared.

"What's pretty clear is that everyone is trying to figure out how to adapt to a changing business and political climate that's becoming increasingly shaped by health and safety issues," Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita wrote to CBSSports.com. "We're all in the early stages of a sort of evolution, and learning how to navigate through it is the challenge. And cutting through all the posturing and rhetoric makes it even more challenging.

"Players need to take these issues seriously, obviously, because it affects their long-term health and well-being. And the league needs to take it seriously because for the first time this issue legitimately impacts the long-term business interests of the game. So it's a very loaded set of issues and a lot needs to be considered as both sides figure out how to properly address all this."

In other words, the concern some union members have, as the anniversary of the lockout's end arrived, and lessons from that chaotic time are digested, is if players are ready for what could quickly become a drastically different sport if the lawsuits and other issues take hold.

We saw some of this potential future conflict in the Saints bounty case. The players believe the NFL went after the Saints mainly in an attempt to stop future lawsuits, leaving the union in an awkward position.

Can the union, post-lockout, adapt to what could be a changing sport over the life of this deal? That's the question.

When the lockout vote was taken last year there were two unanimous votes by union leaders. There was a sense that a new era for the players was beginning and even a possibility the arctic chill between Goodell and union leader DeMaurice Smith would thaw. The two men stood close to each other in the moments after the union vote.

"If we don't have a good relationship," Smith said at the time, "it hurts the game and the business of football. I'm not sure any two people have ever come together in a more compressed, public, interesting time than Roger and I. I'm proud to say our relationship has grown."

It did grow -- into the relationship from hell. That massive optimism was followed by fighting over things like HGH testing. The venom during the lockout was strong and since then the animosity hasn't changed. In fact, the relationship between the union and NFL remains at its worst since the strikes in the 1980s. It is unlikely to get much better. The lockout was a fiery, protracted mess that produced a contractual labor peace, on paper, and an uncomfortable one everywhere else. Now, both sides, a year later, are thinking of three words:

What comes next?

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