NFC West: lockout

How NFL lockout was good for the game

August, 4, 2011
Recently retired Arizona Cardinals fullback Jason Wright follows his piece on lockout implications for rookies with thoughts on how the lockout was ultimately good for the game.

The National Football League lockout was like a long Midwest winter, the kind that makes people save money for a home in Arizona.

Conflicting court decisions, leverage-minded news releases and false leads on resolution made the NFL skies appear grayer and grayer.

[+] EnlargeDeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireThe leadership of DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell was essential in navigating the NFL lockout.
The lockout’s end has brought the same enthusiasm as the first sunny day of spring. Players are excitedly returning to the game like kids on the first day of Pop Warner practice. Owners are elated that the money will indeed be rolling in by the bucketloads again. Team employees are glad that same money will put food on their families’ tables. And the fans are feasting on a frenzied free-agency period and a quick start to actual football!

In retrospect, the lockout was not all bad. I believe there was a shiny silver lining in its gloomy reign over pro football. I believe the game is now healthier than ever, and a robust framework is in place to prevent another nasty offseason battle from materializing. Now that the lockout has ended, there is an argument that it was “good” in a number of ways.

Valuable lessons

Owners and players have worked successfully together for years in a special employer/employee relationship; special because of the unique position of the players (a superemployee of sorts that is resource, labor and final product combined). Both sides likely thought they were familiar with their counterparts, but the lockout allowed the parties to truly become acquainted.

Owners learned that the players were more strategically and intellectually gifted than expected. They also learned that strong labor leadership could produce player solidarity even in the individualist era of pro football. Likewise, players found that the owners didn’t become wealthy by chance: They DO NOT play when it comes to the balance sheet. Although players will never know whether the league was truly hemorrhaging funds, they did learn that the NFL will do what it takes to ensure that all owners feel comfortable investing in the growth of America’s game.

Call it what you will, but as a businessperson, you must respect it.

More personal in character were the opportunities for growth in individual players. While the NFLPA has always produced an intelligent, business-savvy player board, the average player hasn’t always been so conversant in the particulars of sports business. He certainly is now. Additionally, not knowing when the next paycheck will arrive allowed many players to get a feel for how they will have to live when they enter the “real world” after football. It is my hope that this will prevent the current crop of NFL athletes from following the disastrous financial paths walked by many former players.

Leaders coming of age

From my arm’s-length view, the heads of both the NFL and the NFLPA earned their stripes (and their paychecks) during this lockout. DeMaurice Smith always carried a charismatic presence. It’s why the player board elected him NFLPA chief a few years back even though he was the out-of-nowhere candidate. He turned out to be not only a dynamic speaker but also a visionary strategist.

Although things didn’t go perfectly according to plan, his vision proved resilient, and he was able to successfully steer the players home. His transparency with players was a new development in NFLPA conduct that, in my opinion, kept players from fracturing as the going got tough. His openness certainly converted this longtime union cynic to cautious-but-serious supporter. I am not nearly as familiar with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell but nonetheless give him credit for picking up the mantle of leadership. Getting the owners of 32 teams in 32 unique markets with 32 specific needs to coalesce is no small task.

Add to that the fact that owners are brilliant businessmen, confident in their respective business track records, and the commissioner’s work deserves a standing ovation.

Because these two men were made stronger through the lockout’s rigors, the business state of the game has been likewise strengthened.

Football is now truly a business

Most importantly, the way in which the NFL and the NFLPA interact over the collective bargaining agreement is forever changed. Under the leadership of Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, collective bargaining got done, in large part, through the conduit of their friendship. It appears they each fully trusted that the other was able and willing to steer his constituents in the best direction for the long-term health of the game. They trusted each other to do this without screwing the other side over in the many dirty details of the negotiation.

Their respective constituencies had faith in their leaders to handle business this way.

As they opted out of the former CBA, owners claimed that the two men had a gentleman’s agreement that the deal would be redone at some point. If true, this is a case in point. This “golf buddy” method of doing business works rather smoothly. It is, however, completely dependent on the friendship of the two men at the top. Because of the nasty rhetoric voiced during the 2011 lockout, the relationship of players and ownership will likely never be like this again. There is now a mildly adversarial tension between the two groups expressed in a healthy distrust of each other. I believe this is a good thing.

I’ve done business with friends many times, and my attention to detail in those partnerships has been, admittedly, sloppier than usual. Because I had established a level of trust with them, I didn’t flesh out all the details. I foolishly figured we could adjust things later if an issue arose. As a result, most of these endeavors came back to bite me in some way. The times I’ve done business with strangers, especially hyperaggressive stereotypical business types, I was certain I’d closed every possible loophole and fully evaluated risk. Heck, I’d even had industry-specific experts sign off on the contract language. As a result, there were no surprises and far less drama as these ventures played out. This is the better way to do business.

The meticulousness that comes with an atmosphere of distrust produces sound business transactions and lasting agreements. I believe this is why there is now a decade-long CBA for which neither side seriously sought an opt-out clause. Both sides have checked every corner of fine print and read every footnote. They are fully aware of their respective “wins” and “losses” and are comfortable with them moving forward. As long as the two groups remain cordial but don’t go back to being “buddy-buddy” labor partners, this is likely the stability we’ll see from here on out. And for everyone who cares about the game of pro football, this is a very good byproduct of a very bad NFL offseason. Here’s to the sunny days that lie ahead.
The pending NFL labor agreement calls for player reporting dates Wednesday and Friday. Which teams would report when? Let's do the math.

Wednesday lines up with the long-established 15-day period between reporting and when 10 teams begin playing their first exhibition games.

Using that 15-day buffer, we can reasonably deduce that teams playing games on Aug. 11 could begin reporting Wednesday. Thursday would make sense for teams opening Aug. 12. Friday would make sense for teams opening Aug. 13. Sunday would make sense for the two teams playing Aug. 15.

The 15-day window suggests the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals would be among those teams reporting Wednesday. The San Francisco 49ers would report Thursday. The St. Louis Rams would report Friday. None of this is official. It's just logical.

I'll list below team-by-team dates for exhibition openers, as listed by the NFL:
  • Aug. 11: Jacksonville, New England, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Diego, Denver, Dallas, Arizona, Oakland.
  • Aug. 12: Miami, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Washington, San Francisco, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Kansas City.
  • Aug. 13: Green Bay, Cleveland, New York Giants, Carolina, Buffalo, Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Minnesota, Tennessee.
  • Aug. 15: New York Jets, Houston.

The 15-day period has been standard operating procedure in the NFL for years, and reports suggest that will not change. The previous labor agreement read, in part:
"No veteran player other than quarterbacks and injured players will be required to report to a Club's official pre-season training camp earlier than fifteen days (including one day for physical examinations) prior to its first scheduled pre-season game."

No players of any kind could begin reporting before Wednesday under the current timeline, so the part about quarterbacks and injured players would not seem to apply if it carried over from the previous agreement.

The earlier a team can report, the more time that team will have to prepare for Week 1 of the regular season. Playing exhibition openers Aug. 11 works in the Seahawks' and Cardinals' favor for these purposes. The Rams, once scheduled to open with the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 7, would report slightly later than their division rivals.

ESPN's John Clayton says NFL owners and players made "significant progress" Saturday toward finishing a 10-year labor agreement.

This story, attributed to Clayton and Chris Mortensen, has the latest details.

This news affirms the feeling that the sides have been close and that the remaining issues were mainly procedural. It's not yet clear when free agency would open, but Clayton says the league is considering July 30 -- one week from today.

Clock ticks louder for Rams, Bears

July, 19, 2011
The already endangered Aug.7 exhibition opener featuring the recently anointed 2014-16 NFC West favorite St. Louis Rams is on shakier ground.

ESPN's Adam Schefter says the Rams will report for training camp no earlier than July 26, three days later than scheduled, according to a source. And that is a best-case scenario featuring a relatively quick resolution to the NFL lockout.

The previous labor agreement prevented teams from opening camps more than 15 days prior to the first exhibition game, counting one day for physical examinations. Holding the Hall of Fame game between the Rams and Chicago Bears on Aug. 7 would give the Rams 13 days to prepare, including time required for travel.

Teams will also need time to sign players in free agency and fill out their rosters.

Don't bother reaching out to Arizona Cardinals employees next week.

They'll be out of the office -- on furloughs.

As ESPN's Adam Schefter reports, the team will institute long-planned cost-cutting measures that have become common around the NFL during the ongoing lockout.

Teams do not make financial records available available, complicating efforts to find out whether these measures are truly necessary. Some teams could be acting prudently in tough times. Others could be using the lockout as an excuse to increase profits at the expense of their employees.

The Cardinals' measures are not particularly unusual. The New York Jets, for instance, have instituted one-week furloughs every month.

But the Cardinals' long-standing reputation for frugality -- let's face it, they were known as flat-out cheap for decades -- provides context for any cost-cutting measures. These furloughs threaten to reinforce an image the organization has tried to shake since opening a new stadium in 2006.