Tagliabue Salvages Labor Talks with Shrewd Tactics
Len Pasquarelli believes NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue may have saved the day with an uncharacteristic publicity stunt.
Traditionally a man who has been far more about substance than style during his 17-season tenure, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped out of character a bit on Thursday morning. And by the end of the day, it paid off, with the NFL and the NFL Players Association mutually backing away, at least for 72 hours, from the stark precipice of a potential labor abyss.
In summoning league owners (many of whom loathed having to make a trip they assumed would be inconsequential) to Manhattan on Thursday morning, Tagliabue wasn’t rallying the troops for one desperate attempt at cobbling together a consensus to extend the collective bargaining agreement. No matter how much arm-twisting the commissioner might have undertaken, the NFL wasn’t going to achieve in one morning what its best labor minds couldn’t accomplish over the past year of negotiations.
Those who bought into the notion that the owners were convening for a “last gasp” attempt at avoiding the kind of labor strife that marked the 1980s were sold a flimsy bill of goods. So here’s hoping the overpriced scrambled eggs at the owners’ hotel were pretty good and that the pricey coffee was well-brewed. Still, owners traipsed in from all over the country for what turned out to be a 57-minute session, during which the commissioner was the lone speaker. One aging owner from an AFC team didn’t fall asleep in his Manhattan hotel room until 3 a.m., and his wake-up call came only four hours later. Seahawks team president Tim Ruskell, who attended the scouting combine in Indianapolis, flew back to Seattle and then had to criss-cross back again for Thursday’s meeting. General managers and cap experts, pressed for time as they struggle to squeeze under the 2006 spending limit, took a half-day out of their schedules that they knew they really couldn’t afford.
So why, given the sense of futility and the perception that there was going to be no 11th-hour resolution to the NFL’s stickiest predicament in about a decade and a half, did Tagliabue convene the meeting? Well, as colleague Chris Mortensen of ESPN noted, Tagliabue didn’t want the bad news delivered by fax or e-mail or, for that matter, by “SportsCenter.” He felt compelled, and rightly so, to eyeball the men who essentially pay his salary and dispatch the details face to face.
Oh, yeah, there’s also another reason for the meeting: Solidarity. Or at least the faÃƒÂ§ade of a united front. And it was the show of solidarity, in part, that played some role in the late afternoon announcement that the league and its players had delayed the start of free agency for three days, in the hopes that negotiations can be resumed. The question is begged: Who blinked first? And in the first few hours after the league’s statement that an agreement had been reached to push back free agency, there was no definitive answer.
But this much we know: It was NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, not Tagliabue, who said on at least four occasions in the last few weeks that “under no circumstances” would free agency be delayed. Given his laser-repaired eyesight, it should be noted, Tagliabue doesn’t blink quite as much as he once did, now that he has abandoned those lawyerly-looking spectacles he once wore. The union agreed to the delay, sources said, when the league apprised them a new proposal was forthcoming. But they didn’t have to stop the clock on free agency and, rest assured, one reason they did was because veteran players had begun to phone the NFLPA offices to question what was going on.
Here’s hoping the gambit achieves its ultimate aim: A long term deal with the players by the end of the weekend.
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