If you study the history of American business, one thing you quickly learn is that billionaires don't typically amass their wealth and power by innovation alone. They often do it by imposing their will and flexing their financial might. Negotiating deals worth billions of dollars is not for the timid, and it also doesn't require that both sides play nice.
That's why it wasn't a surprise to see the NFL owners attempt a savvy bit of public relations Thursday night when they tried to pressure the NFL Players Association into signing a new 10-year labor agreement. A deal between the two sides hadn't actually been reached, and few players had even been given a copy of the agreement to read.
That didn't stop NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners from holding a press conference and declaring our long national lockout nightmare to be over. It was all great theater on behalf of the owners, but it wasn't exactly bargaining "collectively" — or in good faith.
That became increasingly clear when NFLPA leadership began to go over the 400-page proposal line by line and learned there were provisions in it that hadn't actually been discussed during negotiations, specifically supplemental revenue sharing among the owners.
In addition, the owners were clearly trying to put public pressure on the players to sign off on the agreement immediately, virtually within the hour. If they didn't, it was clear who the public would blame: the greedy athletes. When various players expressed their frustrations on Twitter — highlighted by Redskins player rep Vonnie Holiday writing, "The truth of the matter is we got tricked, duped, led astray, hoodwinked, bamboozled" — Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson effectively stamped his feet in frustration, saying he was "baffled" by the players' behavior.
What's truly baffling is that the owners felt it was necessary to alter a proposal (that would be binding for the next 10 years) at the last minute, then demand (in a press conference, no less) the players accept it almost immediately. It reignited feelings of distrust, and that's why the players are going to wait a few days before they vote on it. The owners started the lockout by opting out of a previous agreement. The players aren't about to be rushed into a new one now that the owners are nervous about missing preseason games.
"Man, they don't make anything easy," Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth wrote on Twitter in reference to the owners, trying to explain the situation to fellow Ravens.
The relationship between the owners and NFL players has clearly evolved the way modern marriage has evolved. Both parties in the relationship have power, and both sides have a responsibility to consult one another, even over minor decisions. But it's also clear the owners would much prefer a 1950s marriage, where one person makes all the decisions and the other stoically accepts them. In their fantasies, the majority of NFL owners probably look in the mirror and see themselves as Don Draper from Mad Men.
The players' trepidation is understandable. This lockout didn't begin because the NFL is in financial peril. In fact, the opposite is true. The league is booming, and it's going to continue booming. No NFL team was losing money. Everyone was getting rich. The owners just want a bigger piece of the pie. And eventually they'll get it.
There is a lot in the current proposal that is good for both sides. Ravens players who have read the entire agreement have said as much. The owners get an increased percentage of the revenue, and they won't be obligated to give the next JaMarcus Russell nearly $40 million in guaranteed money before he's played a snap. The players get more benefits, including health insurance they can purchase for life, and additional security for veterans. That's why the players will almost certainly accept it eventually, as long as some details are explained and others tweaked.
But the players deserve to know where the money from supplemental revenue sharing will go. Will small market teams such as the Bengals and Bills simply get to pocket money they get from the Cowboys? Shouldn't that money go back into the product in some form? Details like this matter in labor negotiations, even if the general public doesn't have patience for such nuance.
In a perfect world, Goodell and union leader DeMaurice Smith would have appeared at a press conference together to announce a new labor deal once both sides had privately agreed to all the details. But the NFL owners couldn't resist one last power play. It was like putting a wedding announcement in the paper before the bride had even said yes to a proposal.
It's not exactly the way to begin a happy marriage.