Why Goodell, Smith remain at odds

Commissioner, NFLPA leader inherently different; mistrust easy to sense

Originally Published: May 29, 2012
By Andrew Brandt | ESPN.com

A new 10-year labor agreement in the NFL has amounted to anything but labor peace. The relationship between the NFL and the NFL Players Association has never been more toxic, even more than during last year's lockout.

At the heart of the discord is a palpable lack of trust between the leaders for each side, commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith.

Trust is the fuel by which deals are made and mutual courtesies are extended. Trust is the basis for open and honest communication and coordination, foreign concepts to this relationship.

Oil and water

Goodell is understated, with public comments on task yet unrevealing. Smith is bombastic, with inflammatory language for effect. (Last week's "Cartels do what cartels will do," described the NFL's alleged collusive behavior.) Goodell is a businessman maneuvering discreetly in private; Smith is a litigator perpetually addressing the jury.

Goodell is an NFL lifer who built a reputation over decades. Smith entered the NFL scene in 2009 when he wowed NFLPA leadership with a PowerPoint presentation emphasizing connections in high places in Washington.

Their predecessors, Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, built a close connection recognizing they would have mutual needs along the way. The bond strengthened during the tragedy of 9/11 when both suffered personal losses.

Goodell and Smith's relationship is still young and they have obviously not shared a national tragedy. Still, there has been nothing to suggest the sense of cooperation that Tagliabue and Upshaw had. Indeed, Smith bristles at references to the friendliness of that relationship, maintaining that the players need a more aggressive posture toward management.

It's personal

Last year's "Show us your books" mantra has become this year's "Show us your bounties!", with Smith grumbling about the lack of disclosure from Goodell and the NFL in this age of needed transparency.

My sense is, with both the team financials and the bounty evidence, Goodell had/has more information than disclosed, yet (1) he had/has no obligation to show Smith, doing only what is required under the CBA and the personal conduct policy and, more damning, (2) he does not trust Smith and the union with that information. In other words, their failure to disclose is not only business, it's personal.

And it has become personal on both sides. Players have taken aim at Goodell with vicious name-calling and, in the case of Jonathan Vilma, a defamation lawsuit. Goodell has rightly not responded; he can do no good, only harm, by engaging players personally. And though Smith has not joined the personal attacks, he has not reined them in either. NFL owners and league officials have certainly noted his silence in the face of player attacks on Goodell.

Agreeing to disagree

Since the apparent warming between Smith and Goodell upon executing the new CBA last August, the mutual frostiness is only increasing. Smith meets every initiative brought by Goodell with resistance.

HGH testing was to be instituted last August; we are now entering June and are back to square one -- the scientist leading the population study has withdrawn, apparently tired of the bickering between the two sides over the mechanics of the study.

The players' bounty suspensions were, we thought, carefully considered with input from Smith and the union. Evidently not, however, as Smith and the NFLPA have filed two grievances to remove Goodell's appellate power over the suspensions, a power they negotiated into the new CBA.

And last week, in the spirit of its highest priority initiative -- player health and safety -- the NFL proposed mandatory use of knee and thigh pads beginning in 2013, a proposal that Smith and the union are contesting, seeking some trade-off to submit to more padding.

Goodell and Smith did act in unison in the recent $46 million cap penalties levied on the Cowboys and Redskins. That apparent harmony was short-lived, however, as Smith now claims that agreement was made under duress in order to secure a reasonable 2012 cap number.

And, in the enduring theme of fighting between the two sides, now comes a collusion lawsuit (with Smith's former law firm, Latham & Watkins, as co-counsel) challenging the same 2010 NFL "competitive balance" edicts that the union sanctioned in signing off on the Cowboys' and Redskins' penalties.

The lack of trust between the leader of NFL owners and the leader of NFL players seems to have no beneficiary except for the attorneys collecting fees. And with recent extensions for both, they are -- sigh -- going to be dealing with each other for a long time. Perhaps it is time for an intervention.

From the inbox

Q: Is there any chance that this collusion case could cause another lockout this year?

Matt in Colorado

A: No. Fortunately for football fans, that ship has sailed. There will be skirmishes between the NFL and NFLPA in front of judges, juries, arbitrators and the court of public opinion, but the games will be played. The CBA is for a landmark term of 10 years, with no "outs" for either side.

Q: What is the latest on the concussion suits?

Andrea in Georgia

A: This is going to take some time to wend its way through the court system. With over 70 suits in play, Judge Anita Brody has required the plaintiffs' lawyers to file a master complaint by June 8. From there will be a parade of briefs and filings, with the NFL certain to try to dismiss the claims based on "preemption" -- that the CBA requires such claims to be heard through other forums such as arbitration. For the more than 2,000 plaintiffs, there is no relief in sight anytime soon. This will take a while.

Q: What do you think of these Terrell Suggs/Jason Peters injuries and the players being away from the team facility longer now?

Peter in Baltimore

A: Upshaw, the former NFLPA chief, prioritized giving players mental and physical refuge from the facility and especially overzealous coaches during the offseason.

When Upshaw made his annual visit to Green Bay, he would always grumble: "These coaches sit around with nothing to do; then they finally get these players on the field and make them do too much."

Smith and the NFLPA made this time away a priority in the current CBA, not only to allow players to recharge but also to encourage them to return to school and work toward an unfinished degree. An unintended consequence has been off-facility injuries to high-profile players like Suggs and Peters and the possibility of losing salary if placed on the NFI (non-football injury) list.

As with every decision involving a respected player, the team must weigh the relationship with the player, agent and locker room against the value of the money saved. If the team does withhold salary, it would be wise to use it on other players to maintain credibility. Also, in these situations the teams are dealing with experienced agents -- Joel Segal (Suggs) and Eugene Parker (Peters) -- with whom they will need to maintain positive relationships for future player dealings.