If I were a football fan, I'd be worried about the NFL season in 2011. That's what this tiff between the National Football league and the NFL Players Association over guaranteed benefits for the 2010 uncapped year and beyond tells me.
Should you care? Not yet. But the tone of commissioner Roger Goodell in a letter to the NFL Alumni Board of Directors this week, along with the reversal of several former players thought to be on the side of new NFLPA boss DeMauriceSmith sets a markedly different tone than the ultra-positive vibes each side has been giving in the early stages of negotiations.
And over the phone from his Washington office, Smith told me he was concerned by "a lack of progress on a new CBA'' after two meetings between owners and players.
Now, we all know a new deal between the two sides to stave off a work-stoppage in this $8-billion-a-year industry will take 52 meetings -- not two -- but for Smith to voice his frustration this early, I believe, is significant. As was his point about the NFL guaranteeing disability benefits for the 2010 season. Under the terms of the current CBA, the league has the right to reduce disability benefits from a maximum of $224,000 a year for completely disabled players, like the paralyzed former Lion, Mike Utley, to $48,000 annually.
Smith first raised this point with me recently, and the NFL immediately took umbrage with the inference that this might happen. And Wednesday, Goodell underlined that point by guaranteeing that the league would keep benefits the same in an uncapped year. Goodell also said in his letter to the alumni: "In all my conversations with DeMaurice Smith, he has never raised the subject with me. Had he done so, my answer would have been unequivocal -- there will be no reduction in pension or disability payments to retired players during 2010."
In an interview with me, Smith said: "I'm thrilled they want to step up to the plate. I wish they had done it sooner ... Why stop now? While they're at it, since they're in such a generous mood, why don't they guarantee that the coaches' benefits will stay at  levels? ... I'm pleased that this happened, but our players are still preparing for a lockout.''
Smith sounded a little wounded in our conversation. He thought he had built a bridge with some of the more militant retired players, such as activist former Colt Bruce Laird. But Laird was included in the NFL Alumni letter, praising the league for its action to guarantee the benefits in an uncapped year. And in a separate interview with the Associated Press, former Viking Robert Smith said the league "was trying to break the union.'' The scare words from both sides are beginning.
Football is guaranteed for the next two seasons. But this spat between the two sides tells me two things: Roger Goodell is not going to be all touchy feely and dismissive when he thinks the league's character and intentions have been questioned. And DeMaurice Smith is not afraid to fire back when he thinks he's been shown up either. I'm not saying there's going to be no football in 2011. I'm just saying this is not a good sign.
AP: Goodell reassures retired players on benefits