CBA Talks Come Down to High-Stakes Chicken

Howard Balzer tempers the recent CBA optimism on the premise that the agreement comes down to the main event: a tug-of-war involving lawyers, promises and egos.

This might very well be an expensive game of chicken being played out by the attorneys as NFL players and owners remain tantalizingly close to an agreement that would end the lockout and begin again the business of football.

This current standoff, if that's a fair way of assessing where the negotiations stand, shows just how prescient former New York Giants general manager George Young really was.

The learned Young has been quoted frequently during these frustrating months, noting how it means nothing to claim that things are "close."

Young loved to parry with the media, and his favorite time in that regard came when he was involved with talks to get a first-round pick signed. Invariably, a reporter would ask him if the two sides were "close" to an agreement. Young would chuckle and repeat his mantra:

"There is no such thing as close. If it's not done, it's either an inch or a mile."

How true, how true.

And while the owners and players appear inches away from an agreement, it's possible they are really miles away on the unresolved issues that are believed to be separating the parties.

It explains why Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman Chester Pitts, the team's player rep, would say it could take "two full weeks" to reach agreement and NFL counsel Jeff Pash said there's no reason this can't wrap up quickly.

The reality is that both are right. Those issues could be resolved in five minutes if one side gives up the fight. If they don't, who knows how long it could take.

Everyone knows significant revenue starts being lost when preseason games start falling. By all accounts, there are two battles still being fought:

*The players' request to receive $320 million in benefits that weren't paid in 2010.

*The desire for named plaintiffs, notably wide receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Logan Mankins, in the antitrust suit to receive special treatment.

On the first, the players know they aren't entitled to those benefits because they were bargained away in the previous CBA as part of the uncapped year. However, a play is being made to have that money used as an incentive for the players to drop their claims in the TV lockout insurance case.

Who will blink first? Is there a compromise there? Until it's settled, there's no CBA.

*On the second, despite denials on Tuesday, reports surfaced late Wednesday and were confirmed Thursday that Jackson and Mankins still want to be paid $10 million for being plaintiffs and for money they lost in 2010 when rules of the uncapped year made them restricted instead of unrestricted free agents.

Both likely would have been franchised by their teams had they been unrestricted free agents, so it's no coincidence they are supposedly asking for such compensation.

The franchise tender value for wide receivers in 2010 was $9.521 million, while it was $10.731 million for offensive linemen.

It seems apparent that attorney Jeffrey Kessler's fingerprints are all over this because he is the legal counsel for the Brady class in the antitrust suit.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but one question begs to be asked: Why would Jackson and Mankins be selected as named plaintiffs, and why would they accept?

Aside from having their names listed on the complaint, they have done little during these last four months. Jackson attended one hearing in Minneapolis. That's it. There are also six other named plaintiffs in addition to Jackson, Mankins, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Most fans, and probably most media members, couldn't name them all off the top of their heads.

Meanwhile, numerous other players like Jeff Saturday of the Colts and Domonique Foxworth of the Ravens have done much of the heavy lifting since March, giving up countless hours to be present at negotiating sessions.

So, I go back to the original question and wondering what the motivation was for Jackson and Mankins to be named plaintiffs, keeping in mind they merely represent the entire class of NFL players.

It's not a stretch to believe they jumped on board to receive some personal gain, and - here's the conspiracy folks - Kessler promised it to them. And now that bill is due.

It has been said frequently in recent days that when the 1993 players' antitrust suit was settled, Reggie White and the other named plaintiffs were promised they would never be franchised during their careers. So why shouldn't the present players receive the same benefit or something else substantial?

The major difference is that the White suit was all about the players attaining unrestricted free agency, which they got. But when the suit was filed, no one could have predicted that a franchise tag would become a part of the new agreement.

In addition, that lawsuit went on for four years. It made sense that White and others would merely get the benefit they fought for.

This lawsuit isn't about free agency. In fact, it is mostly about leverage, something the players believed they needed to keep the bleeding to a minimum and get the best deal possible.

Now that the major issues are completed, all that's left to settle are the lawsuits, which means it's the last moments in the limelight for the lawyers. Kessler's leverage is that the antitrust suit continues, and the owners become liable for a damage award that would pale in comparison to a $20 million payout to two players.

Of course, if the lawsuit goes on, there is no football, and many believe Kessler wouldn't care at all if that happened.

Last month, during the third week of "secret negotiations" between the two sides, the attorneys returned after being absent the previous two weeks. Immediately, tensions mounted, and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told his attorneys to "stand down."

Doing that now isn't that simple. There can be no CBA without the named plaintiffs settling the lawsuits. Jeffrey Kessler knows that. The only ones that can tell him to "stand down" are those plaintiffs.

Which apparently puts the fate of 2,000 players and the game in the hands of Kessler, Jackson and Mankins and which could result in the NFLPA using its "war chest" to take care of some players if the league stands firm.

How good do you feel now?


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