DeMaurice Smith's message hasn't changed. He's still rolling out the same spiel he has since taking over as executive director of the NFL Players Association in March. The difference is that it's getting late in the game, and the union might need a miracle if it wants to avoid an uncapped season in 2010.
Both sides, the players and the owners, are saying they want a deal before the March deadline. But, what missing that deadline means is that there will be no salary cap in '10; it doesn't mean for sure there will be a lockout for the '11 season.
And don't you dare use the word "strike" around Smith.
"A strike is when employees don't show up for work. A lockout is where the employer locks the doors and tells the employees they can't work," Smith said recently in Chicago. "We did not walk away from this Collective Bargaining Agreement. ... Our players want to play."
Smith was in town to speak to former NFL players, which raises another Smith no-no: Don't call them retired. "You are the men who built this game," Smith told the group, delivering a message that differed from Smith's predecessor, Gene Upshaw. "You are all players, be it active or former. We represent all of you."
But the subject du jour is the expiring CBA. All signs point to the deadline passing with no deal in place by March. The owners, despite what they say, are in no rush to force another deal, as they did in 2006 when some said bedfellows Upshaw and then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue worked together to craft a deal that was quite favorable for the players.
Owners are citing rising player salaries and operating costs, saying that revenues are not rising at a commensurate level and that the players get too big a slice of the pie at 60 percent of total revenue.
"Last year, as we started into the worst recession of our lives, the NFL generated $8 billion in revenue. Eight billion. By the way, gate attendance was down only about one percent," Smith said, hammering home the numbers he has at his disposal. "Television ratings are the highest that they've ever been. Business is extremely good. I have a hard time understanding why in the era of such good business, why we just can't get this thing taken care of sooner rather than later."
What Smith doesn't have, he says, is proof of the owners' claims. He has pleaded with them to reveal their audited financial statements to show that there have been losses or small enough gains that the CBA needs to be altered. Getting that information has proven to be difficult.
"I am always happy when we get more information," Smith said. "As the information exchange increases, the likelihood of a quick resolution increases proportionally. But we've got a lot of work to do."
What worries Smith is the fact that the owners stand to collect whether there is a season in '11 or not. The teams will collect a bounty from the TV contracts that guarantee revenue until at least '13.
"If any of you can come up with another business in America that has secured guaranteed revenue to the tune of at least $5 billion a year until 2013 in this economy," Smith said, "the drinks are on me."
Can Smith, who never played in the NFL, complete a Hail Mary and get a deal done? Or will we have an uncapped season, extending further negotiations to prevent a lockout? The clock ticks ... quickly.
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