INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — June normally is the quietest time in the NFL. This year, what happens next month couldn't be more critical.
The NFL and the players association are oceans apart from reaching a new collective bargaining agreement. The lockout, now in its 10th week, is the most obvious indication of that. No serious negotiations have taken place since March 11, when the union dissolved, 10 players filed an antitrust suit against the NFL, and the owners locked out the players.
One NFL event, the rookie symposium scheduled for June 26 in Canton, Ohio, has bitten the dust. More, including the opening of training camps in late July, followed by preseason games in August, will be jeopardized the longer the labor impasse lasts.
If the NFL wins before an appeals panel in St. Louis — a hearing is scheduled June 3 — and the lockout is upheld, the negative impact on the league that Commissioner Roger Goodell cited during the owners' spring meetings this week will not disappear. Likely, it will make things worse. Such a court decision might get both sides back to the bargaining table, but it might not.
Should the appeal be rejected and the lockout lifted, the league must open for business while the owners surely carry their case to the full 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The NFL would need to set up ground rules for sending everyone back to work, but those rules likely would be temporary because the full appeals court could rule in the league's favor, bringing back the lockout.
"The issue about litigation is that there is no end," Goodell said. "That's why I don't believe that's ultimately going to resolve the issue. There is always the 'search for leverage.' At some point that has to end and you have to negotiate."
But to think a quick solution will come out of those negotiations is foolhardy. Here's why: Each side is solidly entrenched on a number of topics, and unless one faction does a lot more than budge, the middle ground is unreachable.
For example, Goodell said in a letter to the players sent March 17 that a salary cap of $141 million was offered for 2011, which he called the midpoint between the owners' and NFLPA's offers. The players claim that figure is based on unrealistically low revenue projections and the cap, based on past years, should be $159 million in 2011.
The players also said the cap should increase to $201 million by 2014, and the league expected it to reach $161 million, which Goodell cited as $20 million growth per club over the four-season span. Player projections were based on an annual growth rate of 8 percent for the league, which the NFLPA repeatedly has said is consistent with the past. The players argue that the NFL would sign new media deals before 2014 worth $8 billion, nearly double the current TV income, sending the growth rate skyrocketing.
Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead negotiator, acknowledged that the longer the work stoppage, the lower the owners' offers will become.
"We are cognizant of what is happening on the revenue side. It's why I've said, and many others have said, this doesn't get easier with time. This doesn't get better with time," Pash said. "It gets more challenging.
"I think any labor settlement is going to have to reflect what the economics are and what the economics can reasonably project to be."
The league says it will have lost $1 billion if there is no agreement by Sept. 1, and the numbers increase exponentially if regular-season games are lost. The players counter that they made between $500 million and $600 million in concessions during negotiations.
Even the length of a deal is contestable. The owners offered 10 years back in early March, but the players immediately balked because, they said, only the first four years of the agreement outlined what percentage of revenues they would get.
The players saw the rookie compensation system proposal not as a way to give back money to veterans that now goes to unproven high draft picks, but as a restriction on future earnings for those rookies.
In his March letter, Goodell said offseason workouts would be more limited, including a reduction of teams' offseason programs by five weeks, and organized team activities (OTAs) from 14 days to 10. The players responded that those changes were tied to all the other aspects of the offer they found unacceptable.
Where does that leave us? In the courts and far from the fields — quite possibly for longer than any football fan wants to contemplate.