Second of a three-part series
Robert Kraft and Jerry Richardson are two of the more respected owners in the NFL. They are friends away from business, too, having forged a strong bond over several years in the league. Their teams even met in Super Bowl XXXVIII, with Richardson speaking very earnestly about his friend Kraft's victory afterward as the Patriots defeated the Panthers back in 2004.
But perhaps no two owners, even as they sit side by side as members of the owners' labor committee, stand as far apart in their public comments as the battle to land a new Collective Bargaining Agreement wages on.
Kraft has served as a voice of hope for an accord between the owners and players during the process, even putting his own legacy on the line. Said Kraft, "I will have failed if I can't help" broker a deal before the March 3 deadline.
The hawkish Richardson, far more privately, has fortified his and many of the other owners' bulwark as they try to protect themselves from ratifying another CBA similar to what they believe to have been a bad deal the last time around, back in 2006.
A co-chair of the labor committee, Richardson has become the symbol of greed for those who believe the owners are trying to strong-arm the players in the negotiations. There reportedly were some tense moments when the Panthers' owner apparently talked down to Peyton Manning and Drew Brees during a recent union-owners session. Prior to that, many owners were stirred into action, sources have said, when Richardson urged them to "take back their league" after the owners had opted out of the current deal.
And yet Kraft has supported his friend, even though it was reported that Kraft was among the owners who apologized for Richardson's incident with Manning and Brees.
"Since the Panthers joined the NFL, Jerry Richardson has been one of the league's most influential owners, frequently bridging any gaps among the ownership groups on various issues," said Kraft in a published statement. "His unique background as a former NFL player and successful businessman helps form a perfect personality to co-chair the owners' negotiating committee. Anyone who has ever heard Jerry speak at the owners' meetings knows that he has reverent regard for the players in this league."
Before the recent media embargo on commenting about anything related to the CBA ever since a federal mediator got involved, only select NFL owners had anything of real value to say about their stances on the issues that are involved in this labor strife. To this point, broad strokes have been painted on the issues, and we can only assume that the owners' message — that they're as unified as they ever have been — can be taken at face value.
On the matter of an 18-game season, for instance, the only ownership figure who has spoken out against the idea publicly is believed to be Steelers owner emeritus Dan Rooney. But Rooney, one of the more respected men in the NFL and a key figure in the 2006 negotiations, said he will not be involved in CBA talks this time around.
Giants co-owner John Mara, concerned about players' health, said at the owners' meetings in 2009 that he was one of the few in the room who was against expanding the season.
Although he's not his team's primary voice on labor issues, Lions vice chairman Bill Ford also seemed to question the wisdom of extra games. "Obviously, on the one hand, nobody likes the preseason much, with four games," Ford told Reuters. "On the other hand, the toll it takes on a player to play 16 games will increase that much more with 18 games. So I don't know where this is going to end. That is one I can't predict."
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been one of the owners most open to talking about 18 games — and he's for it. In an interview with KRLD Radio, Jones said he favored two extra regular-season games "but certainly with the positive input of players." Earlier, in the same interview, Jones said that pushing toward a 22-game schedule (including preseason games) was possible within the framework of the current CBA but that "you want players to be buying into it."
Most owners who have spoken in favor of 18 regular-season games have done so only with the idea of wanting to increase the revenue pool, which in turn would end up being filtered into the players' hands and wallets, they say. The owners clearly relish the TV money they are earning from the networks, and ratings are at an all-time high almost across the board, but filling seats remains a priority, especially for those with new, billion-dollar stadiums to pay for.
The players have argued that it's their bodies on the line for the extra two regular-season games each year, and it's not clear how they'd be compensated for them. Base salaries in the NFL are paid in equal allotments during the regular season, one-seventeenth for each week. Preseason pay is minimal comparatively. The union also worries about the long-term health considerations of adding the equivalent of one-eighth of a season every year to the wear and tear they already receive.
Another key issue, escalating rookie salaries, has brought out exasperation in the NFL's power brokers.
One of the loudest voices has come from Packers president Mark Murphy — who serves as the main voice in CBA negotiations for the publicly held team — in written form. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post last year, Murphy wrote: "Rookies should be paid fairly, but they should not be among the highest-paid NFL players before playing a single down. Teams don't like it. Veterans and retired players don't like it. Fans don't like it. And the players' union shouldn't like it, either."
Murphy continued: "Our current system of paying rookies doesn't make sense. In 2009, 256 drafted rookies signed contracts calling for $1.2 billion in compensation with $585 million guaranteed. This year (2010) the numbers increased to $1.27 billion, including $660 million guaranteed, for 255 draft choices.
"No other business operates this way, and no other union gives its entry-level hires such privileges. The system is so bad that some teams no longer want picks in the top part of the first round of the NFL draft. The cost is too high, especially if a player taken that early turns out to be a bust."
Giants owner John Mara had similar thoughts back in January 2010, when he said, "We'd rather have money going to retired players and veteran players as opposed to unproven rookies. I'm frustrated."
This was expected to be an issue with some common ground, as many NFL veterans also dislike the idea of an untested first-round pick making scores more money than a proven veteran. But so far, the two sides have been far apart on just how much of a pay cut the rookies will be asked to take and how many years initial contracts should be for.
But the biggest obstacle could end up being how the league's revenue is divvied up each season. Currently, the players get 59.6 percent of the revenue — after a $1 billion credit is issued to the owners off the top. The credit is given for stadium and player costs, among other expenditures that NFL teams face. Based on last year's revenue, the split between the owners and players was very close to 50-50 on the dollar.
The owners have spoken in their vaguest terms on this issue publicly, perhaps for fear of painting the CBA negotiations as mere money grabs. Most have been politically correct on the matter, saying things like what Chargers president and CEO Dean Spanos told Chargers.com back in May 2010: "We are committed to doing what is necessary to get a deal that is fair to players and owners and that allows the game to grow. This is an opportunity to create a better system for everyone. A healthy, growing business is good for everyone."
Perhaps commissioner Roger Goodell, who often speaks on the owners' behalf, said it best back in February 2010 on CBS' "Face the Nation":
"We're asking (players) to recognize the incredible costs, which they have already acknowledged, that are required to grow revenue," Goodell said. "You have to invest in these stadiums that we're in today. You need to find new ways of creating revenue, whether it's international or otherwise. And that takes investment.
"And we need to make sure that the owners have the capital to be able to do that. And then the pie grows and everyone benefits. And so I think the players will continue to see growing revenue — growing salaries, but their salaries have doubled over the last decade."
But two men who are some of the owners' strongest support staff have been more than happy to comment on the matter — and quite openly, in fact.
NFL outside labor counsel Bob Batterman — who the union believes was brought on to hurt, not help, the negotiations — has a history of collective bargaining, and he was on the owners' side of bargaining when the NHL locked out its players back in the 2004-05 season. His messages have outlined the owners' beliefs as to why a new deal is needed.
"The pendulum had really swung too far," Batterman told 790 The Sports Zone in Atlanta in February. "We are saying that, in part. The deal in '06 gave the players a great deal. We analyzed it; the owners have analyzed it. They are sophisticated businessmen.
"With the growth in expenses over the past decade or so with the number of privately financed stadiums that didn't exist at the time this deal was originally structured in 1993, there are expenses that are not properly taken into account that need to be taken into account.
"We are talking about righting this sport so that we can have the kind of growth for the next 15 years that we had for the past 15 years. We are not looking to turn this back in time for purposes of sticking it to the players. We don't want the players to be unhappy going forward. We don't want them to be in the position we are in today, saying that the deal has now swung too far back the other way. We are trying to strike a balance. That is all we want."
Lead NFL negotiator Jeff Pash has spoken out against the requests of the union, which has asked for full economic transparency, saying that it has all the pertinent financial numbers it needs to strike a deal.
"We have shown the union how and why the current system does not work," Pash said. "The Green Bay Packers' recent financial statement illustrates the point — operating profits declining every year since 2006 while player costs continue to rise. Last year, the union said the Packers' profits proved the NFL is very healthy. This year, when Green Bay's profits fell in half, the union changed its tune, saying one club's financials do not reflect the overall league."
Some owners have been willing to talk on the matter. Mara made his strongest comments last year on this issue, when he said, "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. They want a deal that is equal to or better than the existing one, and that is not acceptable to us."
The economic issues are at the core of the stalemate between the two sides. But there also is the issue of trust between them.
Goodell's tenure is five years old, and though he reportedly has strong support from ownership, he never has been the point man in a labor battle before. It stands as the biggest test of his reign. On the other side, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith is an NFL neophyte, despite his impressive record as a litigator and assistant U.S. attorney. Several owners, sources said, were suspicious of him from jump street once he took over two years ago for the late Gene Upshaw, who was about as wired into the NFL as anyone when he passed away.
One of the reasons why the 2006 deal was done, most agree, was that Upshaw and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue were very close. They each could convince their constituents that the deal they were signing was beneficial. (Now, of course, it appears that the owners regret having taken Tagliabue's advice, seeing as how they opted out of the deal at the earliest possible opportunity.)
When asked if there was a lack of complete trust and connection between the owners and Smith, Murphy indicated it was lacking. "I think you're right," Murphy said on media day at the Super Bowl. "We don't know enough. I think a number of us have made efforts to really get to know 'D' (Smith). It's only been a couple of years. It'll take time, but hopefully it'll get to that point (of having trust)."
Smith said at the Super Bowl he had a great relationship with Goodell, and people have noted that the two have bridged some major gaps after some tense moments early in their relationship. They speak regularly and have maintained that practice through the current round of negotiations and mediation.
And that's where we stand now. The issues have been laid out. Both sides agree to disagree. There are major differences of view when it comes to how the league should be structured in the future, certainly for the next six years or so.
Not all of the owners are in lockstep, as the Richardson-Kraft example shows, and they probably would admit to varying levels of optimism or pessimism, as some already have. Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver, Kraft and a few others have put on a good face publicly on a deal getting done in good faith. Others, such as Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, Richardson and Mara, have not been as positive. It might be a stretch to say that the owners are as divided with each other as they are with the players, but it's just another layer to this complex battle being fought by complex people.
Coming next: Which owners are likely to wield the most influence in creating a new CBA?