FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — While they will be on opposite sides when they take the field on Sunday, all Colts and Saints players share a common bond when it comes to the looming labor uncertainty. Even as they prepare to play in the biggest game of the season, the threat of a work stoppage in 2011 remains on the minds of these players.
With the current Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire, and the reality of 2010 being played without a salary cap unless a new arrangement can be agreed upon by March 5, players from both teams acknowledged that the situation is something that they think about.
Perhaps it is even more central in their minds after hearing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell say earlier this week that it is almost a certainty that no new deal will be reached by the deadline, and that next season will be the first without a salary cap in more than a decade.
Despite the pessimism from the commissioner, both teams' union representatives indicated that they remain cautiously optimistic something will be worked out — if not by the March deadline, then in time to avoid a stoppage of play in 2011.
"I think we all realize how far we've got to go to get an agreement," said Saints OT Jon Stinchcomb, who is the Saints' player rep. "But, you know, as a player, we're all just so hopeful. The worst thing that could happen for us is that there's a lockout or any kind of stoppage in play. There's too many great things going on for the players in this league to even consider that being an option. As bleak as things seem, we're all just so hopeful that we can find a common ground."
The Colts' player representative, C Jeff Saturday, indicated he is hopeful for now. But he also indicated the NFL is making decisions that make it clear that they are prepared for anything in these negotiations, including preventing the players from playing in 2011.
"I'd say optimistic right now," said Saturday during the Colts' media session on Thursday morning. "Obviously with the owners, the way they've positioned themselves with the guy they bring in who has done lockouts and those kinds of things before, that's kind of his M.O., I would tend to think that's where they're headed. But I think anything can happen. I think we have good leadership in our union. And I've heard from our own owner, they want to get something done, as well. So hopefully things will move forward and we can get this thing sewed up."
The man Saturday referred to is Bob Batterman, the attorney the NFL hired in March of 2008 with an eye on the coming CBA negotiations. Batterman has experience in all major professional sports leagues, and was at the center of orchestrating the NHL lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 hockey season.
Given the seriousness of the situation, Saturday has been taking his responsibilities as the team's union rep seriously, keeping his teammates aware of the situation and educating them on how to prepare in case there is an interruption to the 2011 season — which would also include an interruption in player paychecks.
"I think being up front and honest with these guys, that this could be a possibility that they don't allow you to play, so, make sure you're prepared," Saturday said. "The key to all of this is finances. If you're struggling financially, you'll make decisions or you'll have to make bad deals. To be prepared for that, guys have been saving money, putting money aside so that if something were to happen, they can pay their mortgages, pay their car bills, all those things that we talked about and we try to get guys prepared to understand. If something happens, these are things that force you back into something you don't want. So let's take care of all those, and then we can both sit back and make a good decision for everybody."
Stinchcomb has been doing the same in New Orleans.
"We've had a number of meetings," Stinchcomb said. "I'm sure some players are more aware than others. That's just the nature of the beast. But I think we've all taken steps in preparation for any kind of deliberations or possible situations down the road."
Colts PK Matt Stover, who served as player rep for 17 years while playing with the Browns and Ravens, believes there are two core issues that need to be overcome for any sort of settlement to be reached between the players and owners. First, the owners need to make sure they are united in what they are seeking.
"I hope that ownership can get itself on the same page as one another," Stover said. "That's my biggest concern, that they're not together on this thing, and once they are, a lot of the negotiating can be done amongst both sides. We're in partnership together more than ever now as a player group and ownership. With that being said, we really desire to negotiate in good faith. And we've got to make sure they're on the same page as one another so that we know what the right issues are and that we have the right information to be able to negotiate well."
Second, Stover believes the biggest hurdle the owners face in becoming united on their front is deciding how they want to share revenues amongst themselves.
"I think the big issue is revenue sharing, and how do they want to do that and how do they want to divvy it up," he said. "I believe they feel like the players make too much money. I can understand where they're coming from, but as you see, it's a very profitable league. Both sides are winning here. And they want us to assume some more risk. Well, we need to see what the risk is in order for us to assume anything."
While there is currently very little progress being made on a new deal, Stinchcomb said he, and the other players, have confidence in their union leadership.