CHICAGO -- When it comes to the final stages of labor negotiations, the devil is forever in the details. But on a day when the details of a potential CBA deal between the NFL and its locked-out players really didn't take center stage, one specific number stood out as the most obvious reason for hope in these long and arduous talks: Nine. As in the number of votes it would take for dissenting team owners to block any potential agreement with the players.
At this point, with significant work remaining before a new CBA can be hammered out and put on paper, I talked to no one within the NFL at Tuesday's owners meeting who counts nine no votes poised to quash a possible deal. There was some dissent and concerns being voiced in the NFL's nearly six-hour session at the Westin Hotel-O'Hare, but league sources said it was not significant enough numerically to pose real trouble should a vote occur.
The tricky and somewhat nuanced truth to come out of Tuesday's meeting, however, was this: According to league sources, there were very few specifics relayed to league owners about the framework of what a final deal might look like, and minus those details, there was no reason to either start counting votes in the room or engage in spirited debate about the pros and cons of such a proposal.
In some ways, the league sought to inform the owners of where the CBA negotiations are and where they're headed, without giving them too much information in the process. They purposely kept it vague, sources said. That might be because with two more negotiation sessions with the players association scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday outside of Boston, the NFL wants to keep the momentum going as it heads into what figures to be the most crucial stages of the labor talks.
In other words, the league opted to not take the chance to generate any potential opposition to a deal by not divulging too much of what that agreement might include. The NFL wanted to take a temperature reading of the room and see where things stand as the negotiations enter the backstretch, but it didn't want to move much beyond that reading. Though nine dissenting votes do not seem to exist at the moment, neither does a potential deal. And you can't count votes on a proposal before you actually craft the proposal.
"We have, I think, a very strong view of the priorities and a very strong view of what we need to accomplish in the negotiations, and a determination to get there,'' NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said, in his post-meeting media session. "I think the ownership is unified on that basis.''
Perhaps so, but league sources said much of the information about the labor talks that was imparted to owners and club officials on Tuesday was either in broad overview form, or very similar to briefings that were relayed to teams as far back as March. Goodell conceded that much of the heavy lifting needed to strike a new labor deal remains in the weeks ahead.
"We have a lot of work to do and we've got to do it right,'' said Goodell, when asked his confidence level in the league being able to play a full season in 2011. "The agreement that we're focusing on and negotiating has got to address several issues, and those issues are complex, and it's got to be in a way fair to players and fair to clubs.''
The relative brevity of Tuesday's meeting spawned optimism initially, because the league last week had told owners and club executives to be prepared to stay overnight and reconvene on Wednesday for more labor-intensive sessions. When the schedule moved far more quickly, it was seen as an indication that opposition to the parameters of a new agreement was modest, and that less time had to be committed to hearing out and persuading owners who were dubious of the deal's merits.
But the reality is the league just isn't at that point in the negotiation process yet, and Goodell said the short length of the meeting should not be over-interpreted.
"You're reading far too much into that,'' he said, when asked if the abbreviated session was a good sign regarding the state of CBA talks. "I think the ownership has a better understanding of the framework, and we have a better (understanding) of the various issues and priorities within the membership. But we're obviously negotiating with the players and the players association and that's what we'll resume doing shortly.
"It was a good day in the sense that we had a full discussion on the issues and our ownership continues to be determined to reach an agreement and play a full season. They're united, and they believe in the best interest of the game, we need to correct various aspects of the CBA. But everyone's determined to get that done and still have the full 2011 season.''
One indication of where emerging details of a potential new bargaining agreement seems to have gotten ahead of the facts surfaced Tuesday afternoon when ESPN reported that any deal would include a full-season TV package of Thursday night games beginning in 2012. But Goodell and other league officials said no such component has been discussed recently and expressed puzzlement because that idea for generating new revenue was not part of Tuesday's agenda in any way.
"I haven't focused on that recently, meaning (in connection to the) CBA?'' Goodell said. "We haven't discussed that at this point, no.''
Still, despite the surprising lack of detail offered to owners Tuesday, there was a sense of optimism that a new labor deal could be within reach in the coming two weeks. Colts owner Jim Irsay expressed it best, just before entering the meeting Tuesday morning.
"This is the season to get a deal,'' Irsay said, sounding almost Biblical in his hopes. "I think that's the hope. I think the logic that you're pushing on both sides is saying, 'Why get a deal Oct. 1, or whenever, when you could have had July 7, or whatever?' It just makes sense to continue to have a feeling of urgency to try and get something done. That's my hope. But these things are fragile. But 90 percent or more on both sides want to get a deal, so both sides keep working.''
Which in the end is no doubt the best piece of hard news to come out of Tuesday's brief owners meeting. The two sides, players and owners, plan to continue working at it, starting with Wednesday's negotiation session in Boston. It has been in recent, low-profile settings that most of the progress in these talks have been made. If that trend continues, the details will eventually get ironed out, and a deal will be forthcoming.