NFL dispute far from over

- Power and leverage are what typically tilt the pendulum of negotiations, especially when it involves management and organized labor. Strength is respected, and feared. And, of course, weakness is preyed upon. No one wants to negotiate from a position of weakness.

No truer example of that axiom of business exists than the nasty labor dispute that has brought the NFL to a self-inflicted, self-destructive standstill.

The lockout is a constant reminder of the deep disconnect between the owners and the players. We're all awaiting the key June 3 hearing before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis to determine the latest bit of leverage. The owners' ability to continue the work stoppage is expected to be upheld by the three judges presiding over the case. So, where will that leave the pending fate of the NFL season?

With the players' side led by litigious NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith not expected to cave in anytime soon regardless of the outcome of the hearing, the labor battle is expected to last at least until July if not longer.

Many players, agents and team executives believe the season is in serious danger.

"My personal view is this is what labor negotiations are," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told Tennessee Titans season ticket holders last week. "They get resolved. The players struck twice in the '80s. Lockouts are a tool to force negotiation, to force pressure on all parties so that there is a negotiation.

"This is not good for anybody. It's not good for clubs, it's not good for the players, it's certainly not good for the fans. But it's time to address this. These are serious issues that need to be addressed." Indeed.

Undrafted rookie free agents and veteran free agents are in limbo. Coaches' pension plans and retirement funds have been halted. There are no practices, other than the informal variety like the one Baltimore Ravens players conducted last week at Towson University.

And fans' typically intense interest and support of the popular game is being taken for granted. Searching for insight, we decided to ask former Ravens kicker Matt Stover about the unresolved, chaotic labor situation following his retirement press conference.

A longtime players union representative during his playing days, Stover was an influential voice in the NFL Players Association who has been through many labor wars over the years. And he doesn't think this fight is on the verge of ending in a compromise, at least not yet. "I want there to be football," Stover said. "Every player wants there to be football. I think the leadership of our union, headed up by DeMaurice and guided by Jeffrey Kessler and those guys, is doing what I would expect them to do. Nothing is out of what I would expect. I'm hoping both sides have pressure on the system.

"The Eighth Circuit is going to decide a lot this next week. I'm hoping it can be ironed out quickly, but I don't know. Pressure has to be on the system and I think there's still posturing and who can gain the most. We're going to see a little bit more of this, to tell you the truth."

During the owners meetings this spring in New Orleans, the decertification was called "a fake suicide" by NFL outside counsel David Boies. The union seems to be serious, though, about operating as a trade organization going forward. Stover thinks the decertification was necessary in order to get the owners to take the union more seriously.

"As a player in order to get ownership to negotiate with you and do it in a sense that will give the players a fair deal, a deal that's really good for both sides or at least for the players' side, there has to be leverage and pressure on the system," Stover said. "Decertification was not just to gain leverage. I don't think that was the purpose of it. It was to make sure we were negotiating fairly.

"In order to do that, we had to make sure our contracts were being honored and we had the best opportunity to make as many dollars as we could. There were other things in the structure not known that needed to be dealt with and that was for the betterment of the league, not just the players."

It's unquestionable, though, that this labor fight has gone on far too long and is beginning to harm the game.

It's hard not to think logically that there won't be increased injuries whenever football resumes and that the standard of play might be affected adversely.

Goodell makes no guarantees about the season being played necessarily.

"I believe that the players want to play, the clubs want to play and it's in the best interest of the game," Goodell said. "There obviously are issues that we disagree on but there are certainly solutions to those disagreements.

"And I think it's going to come down to everyone realizing that we're better off working together to find solutions than fighting. I'm certainly going to work as hard as I can to find those solutions and get this resolved as quickly as possible."

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