By Michael Eisen
John Mara today reiterated his oft-stated opinion that there will be a 2011 NFL season, but the path to an agreement that would make it possible is stalled because the players association prefers litigation to collective bargaining.
"I remain optimistic because I believe that we can make a deal that is fair for both sides," Mara, the Giants' President and Chief Executive Officer, said in an interview with The Second Verse, a show hosted by Ryan Ruocco and Peter Lundberg on ESPN 1050 Radio in New York. "I don't think that the players are interested in missing games and missing paychecks. Certainly, the owners don't want to see that happen. So I think as we get through the summer and we get closer to training camp, it would be hard for me to believe that we are not able to sit down and negotiate a fair deal, because there is enough money out there for everyone. It is just a question of how it is allocated.
"But in order to get that done, both sides have to be willing to sit down across the bargaining table. We are willing to do that right now. But they have made a determination that they have to go into this litigation mode and that is what they are doing right now."
Negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement between the NFL owners and the players association collapsed Friday, when the union decertified – it is now officially a trade association – the players filed an antitrust lawsuit and the league initiated a lockout of players. The players' request for a preliminary injunction to lift the lockout has been scheduled for April 6.
As a member of the owners' negotiating committee, Mara participated in more negotiating sessions with federal mediator George Cohen than any other owner. And after spending the better part of two weeks listening to the two sides trade proposals in Washington, Mara believes the union was never really negotiating, because it wanted to take its case to the federal court system.
"I didn't feel like they were (negotiating), no," Mara said. "And the frustrating part to me was that there was a deal there if they were interested in doing one. But it became pretty clear to me after the first few days there that they were not really interested in negotiating a deal, unless it was strictly on their terms with regard to the core economic issues. That was what was frustrating. I just felt like we wasted a lot of time down there. We offered to split the difference as to where each side was financially. And they chose to walk away from it without so much as a counter offer. And that is frustrating. That is not what collective bargaining is supposed to be all about.
"I sense that they were convinced that the most leverage that they had was to pursue the litigation strategy and decertify. And that is obviously what they are doing right now. We will have to see how that plays out. But I believe that there was a deal there to be made if they were serious about doing it. But apparently they were not."
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, one of most vocal players throughout the negotiations, yesterday added another layer of rancor when he said the owners' final offer on Friday was "all a show, with no real intent to get a deal done, other than just to say they made a proposal."
Mara sharply disputes Brees' contention.
"I'm not sure what he means by that," Mara said. "Is splitting the difference financially all for show? Is walking away from the 18-game season, which a lot of owners were very much in favor of, is that all for show? Is improving their benefits all for show? There were a lot of parts of that proposal that would have provided some significant benefits – significant improvements for the players. And they chose to walk away from it. So I'm not sure what he means by that. I felt we made a very substantial offer on that last Friday. And they chose not to offer so much as a counter (offer). They just chose to walk away and say, ‘We are going to decertify.'"
When Ruocco and Lundberg speculated that Brees thought the timing of the offer – midday Friday – indicated it wasn't legitimate, Mara refuted the claim.
"There was one day during the first week that I was there - which was the second week of the mediation process - where I started to sense that we were getting close to some sort of tentative agreement," Mara said. "And the numbers that were going back and forth were in that same ballpark. So that is absolutely not true. And again, we had some pretty healthy discussion on that particular day, but at the end of the day their response was, 'No, this is not acceptable' or 'We are sticking with our numbers.' They did not offer any kind of counter.
"Then approximately a week later, which was this past Friday, we delivered a more comprehensive proposal, to be sure, but still with numbers that were in the same ballpark. Again, just trying to get them to at least consider and maybe come back with some sort of counter offer. They didn't do either. They just came back and said that they were going to decertify and pursue their litigation route. And they were the ones that walked out on the mediation process. We would have stayed for as long as it took to try to get a deal. If they had asked for an extension and had given any indication that they were willing to negotiate, we would still be there right now. But they seemed liked they were in a hurry to get out of there on Friday and get into the Minneapolis courtroom."
Although fans have wondered how a $9 billion business can shut down, Mara said he and the other owners are in firm agreement that the NFL must improve the way it does business for the league to continue to grow.
"There are a number of us that feel that the current model is just not working the way it was intended to," Mara said. "Nobody is saying that the NFL is not profitable or that teams are not making money. But there is no question about the fact that our margins have been squeezed considerably over the past couple of years. And the cost of running an NFL franchise has grown considerably, particularly in our case with a new stadium that has just been constructed and all of the expenditures that you have to go through to keep that building running. But we just think there needs to be a re-calculation of the deal and a re-negotiation of the deal. And that is why we voted 32-0 to opt out of the current CBA. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that the owners have voted 32-0 on anything. But we are united about this issue because we do believe that the deal has to be reconstituted. And there is a fair deal out there to be reached. But it takes two sides sitting down across the bargaining table and engaging in good faith negotiating in order to get that done. Unfortunately, I just did not feel that was the case the last couple of weeks."
It was suggested to Mara that the NFL could continue to operate under the existing agreement while negotiating a new one.
"None of us want to work under the current agreement," Mara said. "Our profit margins are squeezed so tight the way it is right now. And the system that currently exists just does not act as an incentive for any of the clubs to grow their business, because too high a percentage of the incremental revenue was going to the players. We talked about that with them over the past several months. There are a number of business opportunities that different clubs have turned down just because the margins were stretched way too tight, because such a large percentage of the dollars does go to the players. That is why the model needs to be changed going forward. But you have to provide incentives for the clubs to grow their business. When you do that, the players benefit as well. The players benefit, perhaps more than anybody when new stadiums are constructed, because they get a significant portion of those revenues. But it is getting harder and harder to build those stadiums now because there is no public money available. You have to do it privately. You have to do it with PSL programs. It is very, very difficult in this day and age to build new buildings and to maintain them. And that is why this model needs to be changed."
Mara was asked about published reports that the owners have the financial wherewithal to withstand a year without NFL football.
"We have all made preparations to prepare for the worse case," he said. "And I think we are well prepared for it. It is certainly not going to be easy. And it is certainly not the preferred route. But if we have to go that way, I think most of the clubs are going to be able to deal with it. I don't believe that is going to happen. I believe that there will be a 2011 season. I still am trying to retain an optimistic view about this, because as I have said repeatedly so far, there is a fair deal out there to be negotiated. Unfortunately, we are going to have to go through this litigation phase now and see how that plays out, which is just going to delay everything. But at some point in time we are going to be sitting across the table from one another and we are going to have to negotiate a deal."
But like everyone else connected with and concerned about the process, he has no idea when that will be.
"I don't know if at some point after (the April 6 hearing) whether that will change things or not," Mara said. "We are ready to sit down at any time. But it just seemed like the past couple of weeks, we may as well have been sitting there staring at ourselves because not a lot was getting done. So it is hard for me to give you an exact date as to when that will happen. But it is still only March. We still have a long way to go before training camps open. Meanwhile, you have 500 free agents out there looking for teams. There is a lockout going on and it affects everybody. But it just takes two sides wanting to get down and negotiate a deal. Right now, unfortunately, we only have one.
"What they are looking for is for the court to enjoin the lockout. If that happens, and the lockout is enjoined, I would assume - but am not 100% sure – that we will go back to the 2010 system and the 2010 rules that were in effect since they were negotiated by both parties. But we don't believe that the lockout will be enjoined. We believe that we will ultimately prevail before the NLRB. I think as time drags on through the summer that is going to increase the pressure on both sides to sit down and try to make a fair deal. And hopefully, we will be able to do that."