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Veteran of three strikes, agent to NFL stars not optimistic

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David Drapkin / Associated Press
Tom Condon (center) represents many of the league's top-paid players, including brothers Eli and Peyton Manning.


INDIANAPOLIS -- On Friday in this town, focus in the labor negotiations will turn to a meeting the NFL Players Association will hold with all certified agents.

That the summit is being held during the weekend of the NFL Scouting Combine is nothing new. That it is mandatory is. And that speaks to a league pulling in one direction, its players' union pulling in another, and everyone on the periphery holding on for their livelihood.

In the center of all that is super-agent Tom Condon, who doesn't wield the power that Roger Goodell or DeMaurice Smith does but brings unique perspective to a fight that's being waged.

Condon isn't just the leader, along with colleague Ben Dogra, of the most powerful agency in the NFL. Condon is also an ex-player, a former union lawyer, and a veteran of three strikes. He's got experience the majority of owners -- let alone athletes -- in the NFL have. And he isn't particularly optimistic now, even as the NFL and NFLPA wrap up seven straight days of federal mediation.

"It's interesting to try new things, and I would certainly be happy if it spurred on a positive result," Condon said this week. "But to me, this feels like 1987."

The first strike Condon got involved in was back in 1974. By the time the 1982 strike rolled around, he was a member of the union's executive committee. In 1987, during a 24-day strike, he served as the league's outside counsel while retired and wound up testifying in the trials that led to players gaining free agency in 1993.

He's also at the heart of some of the issues now. Condon represents Peyton Manning, who reset the rookie market with a groundbreaking deal in 1998, altered the price of quarterbacks with a record contract in 2004, and now has the leverage to force another sea change with that contract expiring. He also has six of the last seven No. 1 overall picks in his stable, a group that has momentously changed the way NFL neophytes are paid.

So he knows the landscape of what caused prior problems in labor, knows the issues now, and doesn't feel good about where things are going. Hence, the comparison to 1987.

"I just think the attitude from owners is much more aggressive," Condon said. "And I think they've made the determination that this is the time for them to make some gains. ...

"It's interesting that the owners aren't claiming that they're losing money. My understanding is there's just not enough of a return on the investment. So you're the players, and you reduce it to simple terms, it's management saying, 'We're not doing well enough, we'd like to redistribute the money, and take from the players, and have more come to us.' But how do you determine if that's all accurate if you haven't seen the books?"

That part is a common refrain for the union in this fight. But what's fascinating about Condon's viewpoint is how his opinion occasionally diverges off what the union wants and what the public thinks is right. Even more interesting is how compelling his arguments can be.

You can say his takes are self-serving and fuel the bank accounts of his clients. But you have to concede that on most of these cases he has a point. Like with, say, his feelings on the astronomical rookie contracts that have been viewed as all that is wrong with the financial structure of the league.

"My perception of the draft is that, from management's perspective, it really is a favorable circumstance in almost every regard," Condon said. "If you're a player outside the first round, from the second round all the way down to the free agents, and you end up being a substantial contributor or starter -- and most teams expect their second- and third-round picks to be that -- you're there for four years, and you're cheap labor.

"The first round is a little different, although I'd say it's fairly typical to expect a first-rounder to start and start quickly. Take Sam Baker. He's an All-American at USC, goes in the latter half of the first round, he's averaging $2.2 million, he started as a rookie. Going into Year 4 as a starting left tackle, he's given really good service and is a high-quality player. And realistically, the Falcons have to be excited about that, given what his compensation is. Really, what you're talking about is the top of the first round."

"Rarely does it make a difference how much money you make. You stop getting paid, everyone will start to feel uneasy."

-- Tom Condon

And Condon is willing to go to bat for the rookies in that case, too. "As much money as they spend on personnel directors, scouts, coaches, and as good as those people are, the time and energy they spend in the evaluation process, the combine, individual workouts, visits, all that, it's hard to believe in the first eight picks that they can't select someone worth the money. What we're really talking about is acquisition of talent."

He also believes rookie contracts can help veterans, and cites Jake Long's deal as a precursor to veteran left tackle Jason Peters getting his market-altering deal after being traded from Buffalo to Philadelphia.

One union plan offering concessions in this area moves $200 million over from rookie salaries -- $100 million to vets and another $100 million to retirees. A former player himself, Condon doesn't think the decision on what to give retired players should be up to him.

"That really is up to the current players, because realistically they're going to negotiate a percentage of the gross revenue," Condon said. "Players need to make a determination if they want to earmark it for retired players. I will tell you, though, that I have a good deal of conversation about it. I left the game in '85, and after '93, everyone's pension went up 40 percent. They made another adjustment, and we got another 10 percent bump, and it's now 50 percent more than I anticipated making when I left the game.

"So it's hard to offer an opinion on increasing the pension -- that has to be made by the current players. Should we? Shouldn't we? That's up to them. It would be nice to have the guys who have a difficult time get more money. I'm more worried about those in a debilitated state who have trouble working, or people dealing with an infirmity."

So where others see the need for change, Condon doesn't. It is, of course, easy to see one reason why, since he has evolved into this sport's version -- from the standpoint of power, wealth and influence -- of baseball's Scott Boras.

But another reason why should make him invaluable to all those other agents in the room on Friday: the burden of his experiences. Condon has been through this before, and so he thinks his role, and the role of those in similar positions as agents, is to prepare their players for the battle, not necessarily fight it themselves.

"Our function is to make sure we facilitate the education process and information flow to our players," Condon said. "While the PA has done an excellent job in setting up the Web site and showing guys where they are, we can certainly assist in that regard. What we've tried to do is have our players have a better understanding of the importance of sticking together. Information is power, so the more you know, the stronger you feel.

"Rarely does it make a difference how much money you make. You stop getting paid, everyone will start to feel uneasy. Nevertheless, the longer view for players is that this will impact them for a long time. They have to have the resolve and knowledge that the actions they're going to take is going to be important, and not just affect them, but their peers and future players."

But the truth is, experience being what it is, Condon is less than hopeful about what lies ahead, saying that "it's a difficult proposition for management to say they'd like more money, reduce your share, and have you play 18 games. That's tough to swallow."

And that, to Condon, is where Friday's meeting comes in. He believes back in 1987, in a similar circumstance, the players union he was a part of was crushed.

The workers couldn't stick together then. Condon's hope is they will now.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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