As the deadline for the expiration of the CBA between the NFL and the NFLPA gets closer, Sports Illustrated took a look at the two people who are at the head of the negotiations, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith.
The league and NFLPA are in uncharted waters with Goodell and Smith at the helms for this negotiation. At some point an agreement will be reached. The how and the how long are the unknowns. So, it is appropriate to pull back the curtain on the two men who are the faces and driving forces for their respective sides.
SI and SI.com’s Peter King wrote the personality piece on Goodell, “The Man of the Hour” for the Feb. 7 edition, and some parts are worth noting as the two sides try to reach an agreement.
First is on his relationship with his employers, the 32 NFL owners.
Goodell will have trusted lawyers and owners by his side during the negotiations, but make no mistake: This will be a deal the commissioner drives, in meetings both with the NFL Players Association and its head, DeMaurice Smith, and with leaders of the 32 franchises. One ownership source says Goodell’s level of trust among the owners is so high that if he recommends an agreement that passes muster with the players, it will easily get the three-quarters vote (24 of 32 teams) necessary for passage.
One thing Goodell has proven in private is that he will staunchly defend the “shield” as he calls it. Michael Vick ran afoul of it with his dogfighting activities, and learned first-hand.
But the commissioner has a cold and confrontational side that serves him well in staring down miscreants and business adversaries alike. “The way Roger talked to me when I was still hiding from what I’d done was such a slap in the face,” says Michael Vick. “Like, ‘Don’t you lie to me!” With stronger language than that. It was rough.”
Goodell was also key in the negotiations with the city of Cleveland to get a new stadium and an expansion franchise in 1996 that would take over the old Browns colors and records after the original Browns franchise moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens.
“There would not have been a deal without Roger,” says Cleveland’s chief negotiator Fred Nance. “No way. He came into a city under siege and was hard-nosed and stubborn. But he was sensitive to figuring out what we had to have to make a deal, and how much he could compromise knowing he had the owners to answer to whatever he did.”
Goodell and Chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics Dick Ebersol are good friends, and the league and network are business partners, but this exchange shows where Goodell draws the line, and what the negotiations between the league and the players’ association might be like.
Now, fast-forward to the 2009 negotiations between the NFL and NBC over extending the network’s broadcast contract for 2012 and ’13. The NFL, according to Ebersol, insisted on a rights fee of $600 million a year, though NBC wasn’t getting a Super Bowl in either of those seasons. Ebersol and Goodell had a few back-and-forth discussions, and Goodell finally said the NFL wouldn’t take a dime less than $600 million.
“There was a coldness and a ‘that’s it’ tone in Roger’s voice that was chilling,” says Ebersol. “At his heart Roger can be a cold son of a bitch. I think the people on the other side of the negotiating table are going to hear that in the coming months. He’s going to show mettle, and he’s going to do what he thinks is best for the National Football League. It’s what he’s always done.”
On the other side of the table is Smith, who was profiled by SI’s Jim Trotter in “The Fighter” for the Feb. 21 issue.
When Smith took over the reins of the NFLPA, he was replacing a legendary and dominant figure in Gene Upshaw, who passed away in 2008. Smith had plenty of Upshaw’s observations and notes to work from as he prepares to negotiate with the NFL.
Smith reaches into his papers and pulls out a program from a 1991 union meeting. Former executive director Gene Upshaw, preparing to speak to player reps, wrote some introductory remarks in cursive on the back of the program. Smith begins reading to himself, then stops halfway through and recites: The owners will always take short-term loss for long-term gain.
Upshaw governed the NFLPA as a lone figure, but Smith’s style is more inclusive, trying to give the players a larger voice in the direction the PA will take in the coming weeks.
Smith doesn’t believe in secrecy. Before his election he told players he wanted them to take more control of their careers and their futures, and that if they were unwilling to educate themselves and be more involved in the process, he wasn’t the man to lead them. The other candidates included Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong, two former players who’d served as union presidents, and a prominent lawyer, David Cornwell, who once worked in the league office. Smith was elected by a vote of 32-0.
His negotiating style is framed by a current player representative.
As much as Smith relishes a fight, he also knows he’ll have to make concessions to strike a deal. He has presented the league with a proposal for a rookie wage scale and made a counteroffer regarding the league’s proposal to reduce the players’ share of revenues. “De is a very intense guy, but he’s also a realist,” says All-Pro center Jeff Saturday, the Colts’ player-representative. “He’s not just a hype man. He’s telling you there are going to be things we’re going to have to compromise on, and here’s why. You have to be up front and honest. Not everything is going to go the players’ way. He’s done a good job of balancing that, so the guys understand that we’re in this to get this thing finished and to get a new agreement in place.”
Where the NFLPA has been effective is that unlike Upshaw, Smith isn’t afraid to prod the NFL’s power players. Earlier in Trotter’s story, Smith references the term “3-D chess” to describe the intricate game between the owners and players. Here is an example of one “chess” move.
One of the ways Smith tries to determine the power players in the league is by “poking the elephant” to see the reaction he’ll get. He has filed multiple legal challenges, including a complaint that the NFL left money on the table in its TV contract extensions in exchange for guarantees that the owners would be paid in 2011. (The special master in the case ruled that the league would have to compensate the players but did not nullify the agreements; the NFLPA is appealing that decision.) Smith has also charged the owners with colluding to limit player movement and earnings during the 2010 free-agency period. (That complaint is pending.)
And another “elephant-poking” move on Smith’s board:
Consider the collusion case. When the union leaked word that it would be filing suit, Smith received a call from Goodell urging him not to go forward. At that point Smith asked if the owners would make certain concessions during the lockout if he dropped the claim. Goodell asked for 30 days to consult the owners. Eventually he came back and said there would be no concessions. Those close to Smith say the endgame was not necessarily to get the concessions but to determine whether Goodell had the influence to get the owners to budge.
In both articles there are stories about Goodell’s and Smith’s upbringings, and how particular incidents in their lives shaped how they see the world today. The two men are not dissimilar in makeup, but both will have to work hard to find common ground.
They don’t have the close personal relationship at this point that their predecessors, Upshaw and Tagliabue, had. But both seem to have the strength to shut out the rhetoric that each side has to spew in labor negotiations, find a way to get things their side needs, and most importantly, allow the other side to save face when the deal is done.