WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 11: NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith addresses reporters after the league and the NFL Players Association failed to reach an agreement in labor talks at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building March 11, 2011 in Washington, DC. The NFLPA has filed for decertification and will no longer be the exclusive collective bargaining representative for the players. Players will now be able to file antitrust lawsuits against the NFL. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images)
An interesting thing has happened in the past 24 hours. Up until the moment that the talks broke down, there was barely a person I spoke to that wasn't entirely on the players side or at least heavily leaning toward their side. But then it all broke down and the owners came out swinging with an incredibly well crafted, reasonable sounding and effective PR campaign that might not have turned the tide to them, but has certainly shaken the core of support the players once enjoyed.
I have a few reactions... For one, the coordinated and incredibly well prepared nature of the owner's response to the union's de-certification lends a lot of credence to the players' charge that ownership has been preparing for this work stoppage for two years. They were seriously prepared with a very effective media blitz the moment the players decided to de-certify. That didn't just come about in the half hour after it all broke down. They were prepared and they have resources the players simply don't have to get their message out. The players don't control NFL.com, which is among the top 300 most visited websites. The players' don't have their own TV network. Jeff Lurie can send an email to every person that's ever signed up for something on the Eagles website, Winston Justice can't.
Arguably the most shrewd thing the owners did was to detail the full offer they made to the players, which on it's face seems very reasonable. Even if the players weren't satisfied with everything, it certainly did seem like there were enough concessions and reasonable offers in there for the two sides to still be talking and moving toward a deal. When thing is all said and done, 90% of what's in that offer is probably going to be in the new CBA.
However, as the player's association pointed out.. a lot of what the owners heaped on us what "low hanging fruit." The reduction in offseason programs, the rookie scale, beefing up the pensions, $87 million for ex players, backing off the 18 game schedule... The players see this as peripheral stuff that there was never really much animosity over. But when you present all of it in one list, it sure seems like the owners have offered a lot. The core issue, no matter what anyone says is about money. The players claim their #1 issue is safety, but that's not the reason they've dissolved their union and initiated a class action anti trust suit. It's the extra billion bucks they want to keep.
That leads me to part of the reason sentiment has shifted against the players, which is really their fault.
The NFL's lead negotiator Jeff Pash got up and delivered a pointed, yet very reasonable accounting of what they offered the players and presented the union in a way that made them look unreasonable and unwilling to negotiate. Whether the union actually was, is another story. Obviously Pash is trying to make his side look the best. But then DeMaurice Smith spoke soon after and took a decidedly angry and evasive tone. He addressed very little of the owners proposal, offered little to no proposals of his own(which seemed to validate what Pash said), and then made the bizarre mistake in my opinion of invoking the names of dead NFL players like Reggie White and Dave Duerson in an attempt to garner sympathy or make it seem like this wasn't a fight over money. Personally, I found it rather offensive. I get that those guys were members of the union and they previously fought for free agency rights... but they aren't part of this fight now. Invoking their names is a blatant attempt at a sympathy grab in a situation where fans don't have "sympathy" for either side.
In addition to invoking the dead players, Smith went on again about his demand for financial disclosure from the owners. In part, this is understandable. If the owners are saying that costs are growing at a higher rate than revenue, players want proof of this. It's the crux of the owners' whole argument and I think it's far to say that the burden of proof is on them. However, Smith issued an ultimatum for the owners to turn over their full audited financial records for the past 10 years. Frankly, that's an unreasonable demand. I think anyone would struggle to find a single labor negotiation ever where a private company turned over 10 years of full financial data to its employees. You'd probably be hard pressed to find a private business turning that kind of info over to anyone. NFL owners don't even share that kind of data with each other. So while I agree with the players at the base level, which is that the owners need to prove their claims, I just don't see this demand for 10 years of fully audited financial data as reasonable.
Plus, people that have looked that the full financial statements of the Green Bay Packers, which is the only publicly held team and therefore must publish its financial statements, have actually found the owners' claims to be generally true. They're not going poor by any means, but the Packers costs have risen at a greater rate than their revenue over the past 6 years. If that's true for the Packers, there's probably a pretty good chance it's true for a lot of teams considering how much revenue is shared and that generally they all have similar player costs. Fact is, any business on earth is probably going to take action if they see their costs growing at a greater right than their revenue. Of course it's also a fact that a highly skilled workforce like the NFLPA is going to resist that.
The worst part is that the players still have a strong case to make. Although at this point the owners have succeeded in making this seem like the players have walked out, it was in fact the owners who began this whole process. They opted out of the current CBA. If it were up to the players, they would have continued to play under the old agreement.
Plus, one of the owners' most reasonable sounding proposals was to "split the difference" with the players in regards to the billion dollars of profits the owners wanted to take off the top. On its face, you say "hey they're meeting the players halfway! That's a big move on the owners' part!" But we can't forget that this is the extra billion dollars the owners want off the top before they split revenue with the players. So they're really only "meeting the players halfway" on the money they're asking the players to give up. This is a point that DeMaurice Smith made, but not nearly as strongly as his blustery statements on player safety and fighting for Dave Duerson.
In the end, it remains to be seen what if any impact the PR war will have on the outcome. After all, this now appears to be something that's going to be settled in the courts, not in the press room. But some good old public sentiment never hurt.