April 22, 2011

NFL, Players end round of mediation without progress

The league and representatives of the dissolved players union held their last day of court-ordered mediation today without result.

The two sides will not meet again for a month.

The union, operating as a "trade association" since the lockout was imposed, is challenging the lockout under the grounds that the NFL cannot use such a tactic in the absence of a CBA.  The league is arguing that the "trade association" move is a sham, and that the lockout is enforceable because the CBA still finds the two sides to a labor agreement.

The mediation, ordered by the judge in the federal antitrust lawsuit, was unlikely to solve the labor dispute in the first place. 

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told the media today that the player's antitrust lawsuit, of which Saints QB Drew Brees is a named plaintiff, will not solve the labor dispute.  Goodell said that the players are trying to argue that staples of the previous agreement, including a salary cap and free agency restrictions, are illegal.

A CBA provides for things like free agency, a salary cap and a draft, which would otherwise be illegal.

In reality, the players are playing a game of brinkmanship, trying to win a major suit against the NFL that will give the Union the upper hand in negotiations back at the table.

Meanwhile, with the NFL's schedule release, there are revelations of the league's quiet built-in tolerance for a delay to the season.  Using home-away correlation and well-planned bye weeks, plus a built-in slack week before the Super Bowl, the league could delay the playoffs for two weeks and conceivably start up to three weeks late and not actually cancel a game.

The NFL could delay the Super Bowl one week to February 12, and use the empty week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl to schedule the first two missed weeks of the season.  Then, the NFL's schedule makers set up each week three game opponents to have the same bye week.  All sixteen matchups could be rescheduled later in the season.

The league has also set up the schedule to allow for two of the first four weeks to be played using slack from a delay of the playoffs.  ESPN reports that the all teams at home for week two are on the road for week four, and there are no divisional games in those two weeks.  Canceling week two and week four would still give all teams the same number of home and away games, and still retain the same number of divisional games.  Those two factors would still allow for a fair playoff seeding.

None of these silent scheduling machinations would prevent the NFL's Bucs-Bears London game from be canceled if there is no labor peace by August 1.

All that means that the real deadline for the CBA would be week five, before permanent, unbalancing damage is done to the 2011 season.  We've always been more concerned about the presence of deadlines than the perception of progress or the shadow games of negotiations-via-media.  It is clear that the league is prepared to postpone as much as the first quarter of the season and cancel up to two games.

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