As mediation meetings between the NFL and the NFLPA enter their sixth straight day, there is a growing sense of optimism that the gloom and doom surrounding these negotiations and the inevitable work stoppage in NFL business starting next week may be delayed or even averted.
The important question that will not be answered during this process with mediator George Cohen is "What are they doing in there?" I will give my best assessment from outside the room.
This negotiation has been rocky since the NFL owners cut short the present Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) in May of 2008. To review, the now-expiring CBA was supposed to expire on March 3. 2013. NFL ownership, which had ratified the existing deal by a 30-2 margin on March 6, 2006, a day they came to rue. As per their negotiated right, they chose to "opt out" two years early, meaning the deal now ends on March 3, 2011 and the clock is ticking.
Since the opt-out, the pace of negotiations towards a new CBA has been sporadic and inconsistent. There have been basic and fundamental issues clouding progress between the two sides, primarily the issue of lack of trust in this relationship.
The NFL has seethed at the public nature of NFLPA leadership's comments, especially when NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith proclaimed a year ago at the Super Bowl that the chances of a lockout on a scale of 1-10 were "14". They have wondered about his end game and what they have thought to be an interest in "sound bites" over substantive negotiations.
Conversely, the NFLPA has boiled over the apparent preparations the NFL has made for a work stoppage for some time: hiring Bob Batterman -- and his significant lockout experience -- in 2007, negotiating broadcast contracts that pay through a lockout, adjusting team and league employee contracts downward in that event, etc.
This negotiation was not going anywhere as of the most recent meeting prior to mediation. The owners were furious that after months of negotiations the union had changed the financial structure of the revenue splits in their last meeting. In a show of protest, the owners left the meeting and canceled the session for the next day.
George Cohen, a respected mediator who has experience in disputes with professional sports leagues and their unions, threw out a lifeline. And, thankfully for all of us who like football, the parties took it.
The fact that neither side has spoken or leaked anything to the media about these sessions is an encouraging sign in itself. With the trust factor lacking in these negotiations, the one person for whom the parties must have mutual trust and respect is Cohen. Were he to see leaks from either side on these mediated talks, his impartiality would be severely tested with his own trust violated.
So far -- and I think this continues -- neither side is talking.
Cohen is playing several roles here: mediator, referee, friend, counselor, psychologist, parent, principal, teacher, yogi, Zen master, etc.
Cohen may be using three rooms: one for each side to caucus internally and one to bring the parties together from time to time. He is there to focus the parties on those issues and more importantly, focus them on where there may be common ground.
I would envision a scenario on an issue such as, say, the rookie salary issue going something like this:
Cohen, to the NFL: What is your big issue with rookie compensation?
NFL: Teams invest enormous guarantees in high picks and when they don't pay off, then cripple the team on and off the field, taking years to recover.
Cohen: Any issues beyond the top picks?
NFL: Not as much, but the big deals creep lower into the first round every year.
Cohen, turning to the NFLPA: Do you understand their problem with rookie salaries?
NFLPA: We do, and are willing to address those top contracts, as our veteran leadership agrees it creates a problem when these unproven players make more than them.
Cohen: What are your problems, then, with what they are saying?
NFLPA: We don't want our rookies to have a non-negotiable scale like the NBA. We want our rookies to have upside if they perform well. We want them not to be encumbered through the life of their career in a below-market contract.
Cohen: And you would make significant sacrifices at the top of the Draft to acheive that upside?
And so on. Cohen's presence will defuse emotions and lower the volume of this negotiation.
Will it produce a deal? Time will tell, but it certainly is not hurting that chance.