Owners, players far apart in CBA talks, but time is their ally

New York Giants owner John Mara expressed his frustration with the lack of progress in CBA negotiations on Tuesday, when he spoke out to The New York Times. It's a sentiment shared by all parties involved in the process of trying to secure labor peace for the NFL and NFLPA beyond the 2010 season. It's one of precious few things the owners and the players can agree upon when it comes to these collective bargaining sessions.

Players and union officials then ratcheted up the rhetoric on Wednesday, when lobbying Congress about the potential for a lockout, even though we are still well over a full year from nearing any sort of deadline or possibility of a work stoppage. Despite the bluster on both sides, ample time remains to hash out a deal, but there are significant hurdles to overcome regarding the very fundamental pillars of any labor deal.

Mara's words are notable for several reasons, chief among them the fact that he was speaking for essentially the league itself. A gag order agreed to months ago between the owners and the union about negotiations has gradually eroded, and Mara had the authorization of the league when he expressed his belief that an uncapped 2010 season is almost unavoidable at this point. (Earlier this season, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was fined $100,000 for violating the edict not to speak publicly about the labor talks).

"I don't think we're making any progress," Mara told The New York Times. "We made a proposal in early November. I don't think we've received a meaningful counterproposal. The point that we try to make to them is that the costs and risks are much greater than they ever have been. Especially in this economy. I don't think there has been enough of a recognition on their part of that concept."

As in any negotiation of this magnitude, when you're talking about a business dividing up $8.5 billion in revenues, there will be times when voices raise and flashpoints where emotions run a little high. The reality is, no matter what is said or done in the next calendar year, we will have NFL football in 2010, and a draft in 2011. And as history tells us, nothing usually gets resolved in negotiations like these until just before the clock strikes midnight (and even then, talks can be extended, as they were repeatedly in order to get the current deal ratified in 2006).

But given the most recent events, this seems as logical a time as any to provide an update on where things stand. I spoke to top officials on both sides of the issue on Wednesday -- one with the league and one with the NFLPA -- to get a sense for how far we have come and how far there is to go. Essentially, the sides are still very far apart in the most integral issue of all -- how big a piece of the pie goes to players. In fact, as was the case in September, when negotiations began in earnest, there is still significant disagreement over precisely how big that pie is and all that goes into it.

Currently, players get roughly 60 percent of revenues. The union would like to maintain that threshold. Owners are not content with the current deal, which is why they opted out of it last spring, as was their right under the bargained rules. The union, meantime, within the past few months offered to extend the current deal by six years, something the owners have no interest in doing.

"The system as it is set up right now is not working," the league official said. "The players get 60 percent of the revenues and the owners assume 100 percent of the costs. Extending the current CBA is not a solution; it's the opposite of a solution. Their offer to extend it is in itself a recognition that it's a one-sided agreement."

According to sources involved in the process, the league, in its proposal to players, would like to trim the portion of revenues going to player costs by 18 percent. "We think the end game there may be to meet in the middle and to negotiate it down to 9 (percent)," the union official said.

However, the union contends it does not have full access to the business operations of the clubs and has asked repeatedly for open financial books. This has remained an issue of contention throughout the talks. The league official points out the fact that the owners have worked out labor deals with the NFLPA in the past without opening the books and that the league has provided the union with full documentation of all revenues "down to the penny." The union believes the four-pages of spreadsheets they were issued are not comprehensive enough.

Furthermore, as a league official pointed out, in 2006, when this CBA was agreed to, and the players were asking for a bigger piece of the pie, "We didn't say, 'prove why you are in distress;' we didn't say, 'prove to us why you need more of the revenue.'"

The union maintains that business must be robust, with television dollars rolling in, the prices for teams rising and small-market teams enjoying success in the playoffs. The owners counter that money they have put into new stadiums and facilities, on top of skyrocketing player costs, in a down economy, as well as the debt they have taken on, makes it very difficult to do business, and the model needs to change.

The union claims that the owners didn't show enough of a sense of urgency to get to the bargaining table. Owners counter that they can't make progress when the union has yet to provide a tangible counterproposal, despite months of talks. What more urgency, owners contend, can they show? And around and around it goes.

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Without agreeing to how much money goes to players, there isn't much to build on, and through 11 sessions, that remains the case. That's why both sides can agree that the odds of getting a deal done by March 5, when the uncapped 2010 kicks in, are minuscule. Each team has been advised to prepare for an uncapped year, which, while impacting the number of players able to become free agents and restricting free-agent activity for the final eight teams in these playoffs, should not have major ramifications on the competitive balance in the league.

And all of this back and forth is nothing new. It's part of the game, and it's endemic to any pro sports league going through a long negotiation. Keeping everything within that context, and maintaining a sense of perspective, is always wise. Again, if we're somewhere in the spring of 2011 and everything has stalled, that's one thing. Any time before that, expect more of what we've seen the last few months -- the storm before the calm.

On the bright side, there are some things that are agreed upon. Both sides want to see some form of cap on rookie spending and more money diverted back to veterans and retired players. The union's model would make players free agents after three years in the league, limit rookie spending and put $200 million back into the player pool for established players. "There's an agreement in principle (between the NFL and NFLPA) that rookies are paid too much," the league official said. So at least there is that common ground.

Above all else, despite intimations from the union to the contrary, neither party wants a lockout. It's a lose-lose. "To suggest that our preferred option is to shut down is thoughtless," the league official said. "There would be significant damage if that happened."

Indeed, no football in 2011 benefits no one, and that, more than any poison pill or artificial deadline, ultimately will lead to a deal.

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