ATLANTA – The heavy mist that settled over Atlanta on Tuesday morning, and delayed some arrivals and departures at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where NFL owners huddled at a nearby hotel for an update on the stalled labor discussions, pretty much symbolized the prevailing climate for the negotiations.
"I'm just talking for myself, but, sure, I'm (dismayed) by the progress," Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, who recently had sounded a note of pessimism on the lack of movement toward a collective bargaining extension, told The Sports Xchange. "To me, it's baffling. It's really baffling."
Equally confounding was the disparate nature of assessing the condition of the negotiations from owners who spent nearly four hours listening to commissioner Roger Goodell and league vice president and lead negotiator Jeffrey Pash review the talks with the NFL Players Association. Unless the commissioner recently mastered the art of speaking in tongues, he and Pash delivered the same message to everyone at the assemblage.
But that doesn't mean all the owners heard the same thing, because interpretation of the commissioner's words was certainly diffuse.
There is, stressed many of the owners and club representatives present at the one-day caucus, and reinforced Goodell, unwavering unanimity of purpose among the NFL's stewards. What is more scattered, however, is the subjective view of where things stand less than two short months before the existing CBA expires. The CBA between owners and players expires on March 4.
Call it, to co-opt a line, the fog of war.
And, make no mistake, it is a battle with the union.
"If you follow the thing blow-by-blow, you can get nauseated," Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay acknowledged. "But I've been through these things before. And you work through them. ... At the end of the day, it gets done, but it is a process. But I'm still optimistic we'll get it done."
Not that there was much said during Tuesday's session to fuel that optimism.
San Francisco owner John York characterized the meeting as "just the normal stuff that is said in these kinds of things." Dallas owner Jerry Jones allowed that every NFL owner is "re-assessing" his financial and revenue models in advance of a potential lockout. Atlanta owner Arthur Blank allowed there are "a lot of ramifications" and "there are still a bunch of moving parts out there." Goodell conceded as much and noted that franchises "have prepared for every outcome" and "will be disciplined" with their approaches.
The grayness that gathered overhead, on a rainy day that cast a literal damper on Atlanta's initiative toward putting last week's atypical freezing weather and snow behind it, wasn't the only storm cloud on the horizon.
Last March, an NFC owner told The Sports Xchange that he felt a lockout could last four games into the 2011 regular season. He contended, rather adamantly, that the owners were prepared to sacrifice one-quarter of the regular season if necessary, to better control player-related costs for the long-term. Ten months later, that same owner, approached Tuesday afternoon and reminded of his original estimate, said his feelings haven't changed dramatically.
The two sides, Pash reported, haven't conducted a substantive negotiating session since before Thanksgiving. Despite reports to the contrary, there are no meetings scheduled. The union a week ago filed a collusion lawsuit, at least its third court action (there is an action before special master Stephen Burbank concerning the re-negotiation of television contracts that guarantees the league an income stream even in the event of a work stoppage, and an OSHA-type request on safety/injury issues) in the negotiations.
Pash suggested that a deal can't be struck "through litigation," and Goodell agreed with that. "It is not a simple process, that's for sure. ... And it can't be done alone. It's time to seriously ramp up the intensity. But you've got to have a committed negotiating partner for it to get done," Pash said.
Goodell and Pash concurred that the lawsuits, particularly the collusion action on the part of the NFLPA, were not unexpected. And Pash termed "nonsensical" the union stance and the glacier-like pace of the talks.
Asked about the NFLPA claim that it had provided the league with dates on which it will be available for bargaining, and that the NFL was dragging its heels committing to those dates, Pash laughed and said: "Look, I'm like a high school kid. I'm always ready for a date."
Despite the dire talk, and very obvious saber rattling from the league, there remain some owners who appear confident there is too much at stake in a league that annually produces $8 billion-$9 billion in revenues to not strike a deal.
"Everyone in that room," Blank said, nodding toward the meeting room, "is very committed to getting an agreement. If that's (reason for) optimism, then so be it. Now, do I think it's going to be easy? No. But we all have too much at stake, and there are too many wise people, so I think (an agreement) happens. I can't say when or how, but I remain hopeful."
As does Goodell. At least publicly.
The commissioner recently suggested an agreement could be reached by the Super Bowl, but stressed that such an assessment was predicated on the kind of hard and detailed bargaining that has yet to take place. On Tuesday, Goodell could not be pinned down to a deadline, but emphasized that "with hard work and commitment," an agreement could be hammered out.
It is, of course, a deadline-oriented league. Very little gets done in the NFL, it seems, minus a shotgun figuratively pointed at someone's temple. If the shotgun isn't aimed at this point, it's certainly loaded.
"It's time," Goodell said, seemingly tossing down the gauntlet, "to negotiate."
It might be overtime, it seems, even if a few owners disagreed.
"It's still early in the game," Irsay said.
But the clock is definitely ticking.
Owners react to state of the labor situation
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