NEW ORLEANS -- March 11 has become a sort of defining point in the labor mess between NFL owners and players. That was the day the Players Association, after two years of failing to make progress toward a new collective bargaining agreement, decertified as a union and filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league. The owners responded by closing their doors and locking out the players, ostensibly suspending on-field business until a deal is reached.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees ponders the timeline and presents a different starting point for the league's first work stoppage in 24 years. It is Aug. 20, 2008, the day longtime union leader Gene Upshaw died of pancreatic cancer. Few people knew about Upshaw's illness, and his passing created a temporary void within the Players Association.
"Ever since Gene Upshaw passed away -- I'm just going to lay it all out there -- the owners saw blood in the water," Brees said Wednesday after a players-organized workout at Tulane University. "They felt like, 'This is our opportunity to take a significant piece of the [financial] pie back at all costs, a piece that we will never have to give back again. This is our chance, while they don't have leadership, while they're scrambling to find a new executive director. This is our time.'
"I can point to about five different things to prove to you that they were ready to lock us out. They opted out of the last year of the [CBA] deal; they hired Bob Batterman [who oversaw a lockout of NHL players]. They tried to take the American Needle case to the Supreme Court to basically give them an antitrust exemption or single-entity status, but were defeated 9-0; they established new TV deals to pay them in the event of a lockout, but we were able to put a freeze on that money because they did not negotiate in good faith and broke the law. And they had an internal NFL document that was leaked -- a decision tree -- that said smack dab in the middle of it 'financial needs in a lockout.' That was in 2008, OK? So you're telling me that they had no plans to lock us out and really wanted to get a deal done? I don't think so."
Brees was just getting started.
"Their philosophy was, We're going to give you a very subpar deal, a slap-in-the-face deal, and hope that you'll accept it because hopefully we've intimidated you enough into thinking that this is a take-it-or-leave-it deal, and you're just going to succumb to the pressure," he said. "Well, guess what. We're a lot more informed and educated than in the past, and we're much better businessmen than you think and we're going to stand up for what is right and what is fair. Fifty-fifty is fair. It's been fair for the last 20 years and I think the game has done pretty well over the last 20 years. I think franchise values have gone up at a pretty good rate over the last 20 years. So you can't sit here and tell me that the system is broken."
The owners contend that costs are outpacing revenues, therefore the financial scales need to tilt more in their direction. The question is, how much? And how best to achieve relative balance?
Like with any negotiation, each side is going to put on its best face and spin for public opinion. Outsiders will get truths, half-truths and outright lies. But this much we do know: For all the talk about the owners' proposal on March 11 including many player-friendly elements -- i.e., an opportunity to maintain medical coverage post-retirement, reduced offseason workouts, no 18-game schedule without the players' consent -- it also missed on the point around which this whole issue revolves: revenue distribution.
The players had proposed slowing down the growth of the salary cap by agreeing to defined -- or pegged --caps beforehand. If revenues increased beyond expectations, the owners would then receive 1.5 percent off the top, with the sides splitting the rest. That proposal not only was rejected, but also the owners' offer last week did not include any mention of projected salary caps. That begs the question: How can you be serious about getting a deal done if you fail to address the key issue? In fact, some would say it's the only REAL issue.
A league official declined comment on the owners' last proposal and said current negotiations are confidential because of a court-issued gag order, but he scoffed at the notion the NFL isn't serious about reaching an agreement. The league continues to ask why the Players Association decertified instead of continuing to negotiate? Why it failed to present a counterproposal? Why in December it accepted only one of the nine negotiating sessions proposed by Commissioner Roger Goodell? And why it proposed a 2011 cap number of $151 million in September and failed to move off it except to go up?
On Wednesday Goodell said at the owners meetings in Indianapolis that the league is getting closer to the time where it will need to consider canceling the first preseason game. The players successfully sued to lift the lockout -- which would force teams to open their doors and resume business -- but the owners won a temporary stay. The formal appeal will be heard June 3.
"If we miss football games because of this lockout, it would be the dumbest thing ever," Brees says. "It would be detrimental to this game. We've built the most popular game in the country; I mean, football means so much more to fans than just a form of entertainment or a game. You can walk around on any street in this city and pull a random person aside and ask him what the New Orleans Saints and football have meant to this town, and you'll see tears and you'll see how important it is.
"We know that bond, and we understand that football transcends just the playing field. By missing games, I think you're making a huge mistake. I hope the owners understand that, I hope the NFL understands that. This lockout needs to end and we need to get back to playing football. We are always open to continued settlement discussions to end this antitrust case, but in the meantime the NFL needs to stop this lockout. That's why we're in court right now -- to stop the lockout and get back on the field."
As a means of rewarding fans for their support, Brees conducted a raffle from which four winners would be allowed to train with the Saints for a day. The smiles on the individuals' faces Wednesday was a reminder to the 30-plus Saints in attendance of just what the game means to fans. Dawson Schoening, 11, was among the winners. Afterward he said it was an afternoon he would never forget, notably the touchdown pass he caught from Brees. The raffle raised more than $40,000 for New Orleans area charities in roughly a week.
These are the moments Brees would rather focus on, but the labor mess cannot be escaped. Brees shakes his head at the notion that the players should accept whatever the owners offer, because one is the employer, the other the employee. Such notions totally overlook the fact that the NFL occupies special antitrust exemptions that allow it to limit player movement and earning powers. Plus, the percentage that each side receives in revenues was collectively bargained. The owners approved the last agreement by a 30-2 vote in 2006.
"We can argue all we want about the 2006 deal, but it was good for both sides," says Brees, who was a member of the former NFLPA's executive committee. "Our point here is, in our offer to them we took pretty good setbacks in a lot of areas. The emphasis that we made in our counterproposal to them all had to deal with money that was going to the retired players' pension as well as player health and safety measures, future medical care.
"We told them that over the next four years, in our proposal, you'll get a lot of money back in your pocket, and then after four years we'll reset [the revenue split] back to 50-50. They don't want the reset. After four years they want to keep it at their 60 percent and we're at 40 percent, which over the course of four years, if you do the math at 8 percent growth, which is what the league has experienced for the last decade, that's $4 billion that they get back. I can tell you that as part of our deal to them, at 8 percent growth, they would get about half of that -- with no financial justification for anything.
"What we were basically saying was, 'You know what? You haven't given us any information to really show us proof of your situation, but we're willing to make this work, so we're willing to step out here for you.' Yet for three years they've done everything they can to [prepare to] lock us out. They're going to follow through with it. That is their goal, that is their objective. But they've lost four court cases in a row, not including a temporary stay. The fact of the matter is, when you break the law and do things that at the end of the day are not right and not fair, you get caught."
Brees knows that his comments will rankle some people. Before agreeing to include his name among the 10 plaintiffs on the antitrust suit, he spoke with a handful of people on both sides of the issue who had been through previous work stoppages. Ultimately he decided he wanted to honor the sacrifices of those who came before him as well as leave the game in better shape for future generations. He also asked himself a fundamental question: "If not me, then whom?"
"In the end it was really a no-brainer for me," he says. "I can't tell you how many guys, both current players and former players, who have come up to me and thanked me up and down for standing up and putting my name on it. That's how much it has meant to them. So even if there were any doubts about it, the fact that you know you have everybody behind you and the fact that they appreciate that so much, that makes it all worth it. This fight was brought to us, and we feel like we were backed into a corner. We're trying to fight our way out of it. Unfortunately, the only way we can get back on the field is through court. That's why we're there."