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Owners' meetings could foreshadow labor strife

Shuttle forward. It is the 2011 NFL season. Three champions have been crowned since the Giants' astonishing Super Bowl XLII victory that ruined New England's crack at ultimate perfection. The fall air is crisp. The nation anticipates another round of frolicking NFL fare.

But the stadiums are silent.

Or, indeed, games are being played -- by guys off the street.

And people are scratching their heads and mulling this thought: How in the heck did we get here?

Well, let us not be blindsided. Let us avoid the confusion, the headaches of standing in 2011 and looking back. Let us stand now and get this:

What happens in NFL owners' labor discussions and actions beginning this Sunday in Palm Beach, Fla., when the group gathers for its annual spring meeting, will lay a strong foundation for 2011.

And the early track we all are on says the 2011 NFL season is in serious jeopardy.

Oh, these things have a way of twisting and turning with compromise created with the intent of all well ending well.

But the current vibe is not good.

Currently, ownership insists that something, someone, has to give. That "something" is money. That "someone" is the players.

Presently, the players and their representation say "no, thanks." And that is a kind characterization of what both sides actually have to say about their labor agreement that could blow up in 2011.

In a nutshell, the backdrop:

Owners voted 30-2 in 2006 to a labor agreement that gives the players 60 percent of total football revenues and gives the owners a salary cap. But after two seasons of analysis, the owners say that 60 percent spending and an ever-escalating cap are way out of whack. The owners can exercise a termination clause by Nov. 8. That would make the 2008 and 2009 seasons status quo, the 2010 season an uncapped year followed by no agreement -- thus, no football -- in 2011.

A 2010 season with no cap would be a heck of a sight. Deep-pocketed owners would likely reign. All-star-type teams could ensue. A one-year-wonder team would likely emerge. And the players union says that once the cap is gone, the players will certainly fight its return.

But that all flares against the grain of what the NFL was built upon –- parity, revenue sharing and balance.

Ownership began spilling its dislike for the agreement toward the end of last season. Then the players union followed with strong retorts about refusing to alter the deal.

This entire subject is sensitive and passionate for ownership, for all involved. I spoke to four owners who, because of the nature of the business, the climate, would not speak for attribution.

But this is a sampling of their remarks:

On the current agreement: "It went too far the last time. It's got to be adjusted, the 60 percent. People have to look at what the real economics are."

On ownership unity: "Ownership must leave this meeting together. I don't know what's going to happen. But I'd say the consensus is being built that we will get out of this deal."

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On labor discussions at the meetings: "I am expecting them to happen every day for the four days we are there. I don't see how they cannot. It is very fair to say we are going to lay some groundwork, some consensus in these meetings. Personally, I'd prefer that and some action."

Two things worth noting are former commissioner Paul Tagliabue's role in the debate and the two owners who originally voted against the deal.

Tagliabue, in some circles, is being hammered for leading the owners into a deal that turned sour. They followed his leadership even when they had their own doubts in the message. Not fair at all. On many past issues, the owners did not give Tagliabue such blind faith. It is wrong to blame him for the 30 "yea" votes. The 30 owners who approved this deal are among the most independent thinkers in America.

Who saw then what the majority of the group sees now? Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson and Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown.

This is interesting because both have been labeled in past years by critics as slightly out of touch and too small-market minded. But Wilson and Brown can fairly assert that their voices should have made more impact.

We are on a track here spinning toward the 2011 season collapsing, with a circus, uncapped season preceding it. And more groundwork for it could well unfold in Palm Beach. Pay attention. It might pay off and save you a few confounding, sleepless football nights later.

"There are a lot of smart guys on both sides of this coin, this debate, that represent the owners and the players," an owner said. "We've got some dedicated people on both sides on top of it. Yes, there is legitimate concern in all camps and all corners. Let's see how it unfolds."

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