NFL Lockout Ends: Why Negotiations Between Players and Owners Took So Long

Susan T. SpencerGuest ColumnistJuly 26, 2011

Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director, DeMaurice Smith
Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director, DeMaurice SmithRob Carr/Getty Images

Four-and-a-half months seem like an eternity for all of us who are passionate football fans and watched the labor negotiations play out hour-by-hour and day-by-day—but was there any other way to get the job done sooner?

From my vantage point, as a former attorney and general manager for the Philadelphia Eagles, I could see that there were many obstacles both players and owners needed to overcome before they could make a deal.

On March 11, when the players walked away from the bargaining table and decertified, one thing was certain—in the eyes of the players, the NFL owners had lost every ounce of trustworthiness.

So, the ultimate challenge for commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners selected to be part of the negotiations was to start from scratch and try to rebuild trust.

On the flip side was DeMaurice Smith, a trial lawyer who had no prior connection to the football world and overnight became the executive director of the NFLPA. During the first year-and-a-half of Mr. Smith’s reign, negotiations with the NFL went nowhere and both sides dug in their heels when Smith, on behalf of the player’s union, filed a lawsuit against the NFL owners.

Business people don’t like to be dragged into court at any time, and by bringing this lawsuit, the players had drawn a line in the sand.

By early March—just prior to the player’s decertification—earnest negotiation became impossible. The second shoe dropped on March 11 when the NFLPA simultaneously decertified, and 10 NFL players filed an anti-trust suit against the NFL and its owners. The next day, the NFL responded by initiating a lockout.  

Throughout March, April and May, all the action was in the courtroom and both sides communicated only through their lawyers.

The situation started looking better for the owners in the middle of May when the eighth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the owners a reprieve that would keep the lockout in place until a final decision of the court—sometime at the end of June. The handwriting was on the wall for the players—as the owners would be able to keep the lockout in place at least until the end of June and probably indefinitely.

Two weeks later, on June 1, Goodell and Smith—along with several owners and players—met secretly in Chicago to restart negotiations for the first time in three months. From that first secret meeting, baby steps led to larger steps and within a week, Goodell and Smith were observed dining alone together and NBC News described the atmosphere as “very jovial.” 

Day by day and step by step, Goodell and Smith forged a solid, working relationship. In less than two months, a new collective bargaining agreement was negotiated and was in the process of being ratified.

Deal making takes patience, the right circumstances, mutual respect and a desire on both sides to get it done. This time, the two leaders—Smith and Goodell—and their negotiating teams deserve a raucous round of applause for a job well done.

Looking back now, finding the middle ground really didn’t take that long!