For Better or Worse, Owners Ploy Worked

As I write this, it appears that the lockout will end in the very imminent future [EDIT: It's over, hurray!], with “offseason” activities beginning as early as tomorrow after the players sign off on the new CBA. This, of course, is fantastic news for any football fan out there — after a contentious summer that cast the 2011 season in doubt and dominated the headlines in the worst way (seriously, I’m not even that mad that there’s a new Brett Favre comeback story, because at least that makes this feel like any other NFL offseason), we’re back to talking about what’s going to happen on the field, knowing a season will happen in full.

The most recent flurry of lockout activity was spurred by the NFL owners, who voted last Thursday to pass a new collective bargaining agreement by a 31-0-1 vote (with Oakland, led by enigmatic zombie Al Davis, the lone abstention). This appeared to be the greatest step forward in the negotiations, except for one prickly detail: the owners voted on a CBA that the NFLPA hadn’t even seen yet, unfairly placing the onus on the players to quickly get a deal done lest they be blamed by fans for any further holdup of the 2011 season. It was, in my opinion, an incredibly sleazy move, a public relations power play that could potentially turn the tables on which side would be perceived as the “bad guys” in this negotiation.

And it worked. For better or worse, it worked.

Say what you will about the owners — and there’s a lot to say, most of it negative, given what’s transpired over the past year — but they’re clearly a tight-knit group who know how to get what they want. With the NFL already forced to cancel the Hall of Fame Game, and potential millions — even billions — to be lost with any further loss of games, the owners made their move. They wrote up the CBA — without discussing a few remaining issues with the players — passed it, and then went to the press, acting as if the only thing standing between the fans and the season we so desperately want to see was the NFLPA. I’ll point you to the words of former MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller, the union legend who brought free agency to baseball and helped revolutionize the business of sports, in an excellent article by ESPN’s Ian O’Connor:

“There’s nothing wrong with owners ratifying the deal and trying to expedite it,” Miller said. “But making it public before the players got hold of the agreement is wrong. That’s the role of somebody trying to instigate problems with the players, and it was guaranteed to do so.

“Picture yourself as a player who’s been terribly provoked, and worried about how long the lockout will last, and suddenly the owners are announcing a settlement and you don’t even know what’s in the deal. I’ve never before seen that in my life.”

Miller doesn’t know any current NFL employers, but he’s faced off against enough overprivileged owners in his day to know that power often means more to them than money.

Telling the players they’ve already approved a deal to reopen for business when those players don’t know the exact terms? Imposing a deadline on the players’ association to recertify as a union? Inviting the public to cast stones at the modern-day gladiators for delaying their own return to the arena?

Yes, the league was trying to re-establish its power and control over the athletes.

Most intelligent fans saw right through this, but there was still plenty of pressure on the NFLPA — from fans, from players, from everybody sick of labor negotiations and ready for some football — to get a deal done, and quickly. Just four days later, that deal has happened. I couldn’t be happier that we’ll see a full NFL season this fall, and I’d be lying if I stated anything to the contrary. But the fashion in which the CBA was finalized just doesn’t sit well with me — the owners, in essence, handed the players a ticking time bomb, and luckily for all parties involved it didn’t spark a labor catastrophe, instead pushing the two sides to a quicker agreement. Some will say that the ends justify the means, but I can’t shake the fact that the NFL is run by a small, supremely powerful group of mega-rich sleazebags. While that didn’t hurt the NFL too badly this time around, it’s going to come back to bite the league down the road.

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