This morning BI caught up with NFLPA Assistant Executive Director of External Affairs George Atallah, who filled us in on the latest news surrounding labour talks.
BI: What happened on Wednesday that caused talks to break down?
GA: “I’m not going to talk about the specifics, or the specific construct of what happens in those meetings, because I think there’s still an opportunity to get something done with 19 days to go. So out of respect for my colleagues, for those guys on the other side of the table, I think it’s important that they know we want to negotiate, and we want to have a new deal. Until we get to a point where we’ve completely lost hope, I’ll continue to hold out hope. The however piece of this is that none of these events started yesterday. It’s not like the players woke up on Wednesday and realised that they may get locked out on March 4th. This has been something that actions have spoken to since March of 2008, before they even opted out. That’s kind of the context that I really want NFL fans to view this in. It’s not like there’s 19 days to go and all of a sudden [there’s panic] because there is going to be a lockout. This is something that we’ve been talking about for almost two years now.”
BI: What did you make of NFL Senior VP/PR Greg Aiello’s statement yesterday that reports of what went on were “inaccurate?”
GA: “I don’t know. I don’t know what to make of his statement; I don’t know what to make of the reports out there that are floating around out there about what happened. I can just re-iterate directly that I’m not going to characterise what took place on Wednesday or why the meeting was canceled on Thursday, other than to say I wish we were talking. Obviously the best measure I can give you…Domonique Foxworth is on our executive meeting was at the meeting. He tweeted that he was disappointed that we weren’t talking. So you can imply from his tweet about what went on.”
BI: Judging from your tweets, it seems that there’s a strong feeling of frustration on your part. Is that an accurate word for your feelings at this point?
GA: “Yeah, I mean, I’ve particularly had a sense of urgency since March of ’09, since May of ’09, when D [NFLPA Exec. Director DeMaurice Smith] and the players asked me to take this position. The writing has kind of been on the wall. [There’s been] a long litany of things that we call the lockout checklist of things that they’ve done since March of ’08. I mean look, in March of ’08 they hired Batterman, and two months later they opted out. In December of ’08 they laid off 15% of their staff. That was before the country was experiencing a recession. In January of ’09 they took American Needle to an appeal to the Supreme Court. February of ’09 Goodell took a pay cut. In March of ’09, this is when things really started to get to a critical mass, in March of ’09 the owners passed a resolution giving NFL teams the option to opt out of benefit programs for coaches and executives. And they didn’t tell the coaches until after the resolution was passed. They did it in a memo where they slipped it under their doors. I could go on and on, but the writing’s been on the wall for a very long time.”
BI: So in the opinion of the NFLPA, the NFL has been preparing for this and expecting it, and willing to do it until they got their way and they weren’t really looking for negotiations?
GA: “You can characterise it as that, they’ve been preparing for a lockout, yes, for a very long time.”
BI: Did you think it was contradictory that last week Roger Goodell said he wanted “round the clock, intensive negotiations” and then the owners walked away?
GA: “The only thing I can say is we’d be willing to meet whenever, wherever. We wish we were meeting and we wish that our meetings were constructive.”
BI: Were the reports of your offer to split total revenue 50/50 just a starting point? Would you have been willing to negotiate that farther and did the NFL’s reaction surprise you?
GA: “The specifics of our proposals, I’m not going to talk about in public.”
BI: Was this “veteran wage scale” disagreeable because the offer basically suggested that teams should control player salaries for their first few years in the league, and you feel that by the time that’s up most of your players aren’t in the league anymore?
GA: “Yeah, absolutely. The average player plays 3 ½ years. So you make free agency five years, and how many people get to free agency? Almost nobody. It’s a big problem when you can characterise our rookie proposal, as a willingness to negotiate at worst, and a concession at best, and we get back what we got back.”
BI: Are you surprised at how things have gone in the last couple of weeks or couple of months, or did you expect this all along?
GA: “We’ve been preparing for the worst for quite some time. Our preparations for the worst are not mutually exclusive with our commitment to getting the best, and that’s a fair CBA for everybody. I think to say, ‘well you either are going to prepare for a lockout, or prepare for a negotiation, which is it?’ I think that’s a false choice. In the same way they’ve taken steps to effectuate a lockout, the players have to prepare for that possible reality. At the same time, we have put every ounce of our energy into trying to negotiate a new deal, and that’s the outcome that we want.”
BI: Has there been a reaction of surprise from the players with the abruptness of how talks were cut off this week?
GA: “I don’t know. Obviously I’ve talked to a number of players, and there’s a certain element of frustration, because as you approach deadline, we’ve 19 days to go, so just from a timing perspective there’s a greater sense of urgency, but nobody anticipates what may have happened on Wednesday.”
BI: Did talks pick up last week because we’re getting so close to the March 4th deadline, or was the spirit of Super Bowl week a contributing factor?
GA: “I don’t know. I’m not involved in scheduling the meetings, I’m one step removed from the nuts and bolts of that, but we have worked tremendously hard over the course of the last 23 months to try to get something done. I don’t see a reason why we’ve got to wait until the last minute. I don’t see a necessary element of urgency any more than what we know. This is the most successful game in America, the most popular sport in America, the most profitable sport in America. We had a Super Bowl that was the most viewed television show in this country’s history and the urgency on the players’ side is not to screw it up. We’ve felt a sense of urgency for a long time now.”
BI: Popular perception is that the longer a lockout goes, the more it favours the owners, because they can stomach the financial losses but not every player makes enough money to last through a lockout. Have some of those players that aren’t making big money been expressing concern to you lately?
GA: “The concern is not with the deadline approaching, because that’s been a reality for a long time. I don’t really think there’s anything we can do other than negotiate as hard as possible. And try to make sure our players are protected. The March 4th deadline may raise the sense of urgency for people that may not have been paying attention, but our players have been paying attention.”
BI: Yesterday SI’s Jim Trotter tweeted that two owners told him if there’s not a deal by March 4th, they don’t expect anything until labour day. Do you have a comment on that?
GA: “Only one group of people can effectuate a lockout, so you’d have to ask the owners.”
BI: Do you feel that the fans and media have an accurate grasp of the wants of both sides of these negotiations? Do you think that fans are more sympathetic to the players right now?
GA: “I don’t know that there’s a sympathy factor to this, I know that there’s a fairness factor to this. If the owners really want $1 billion back in this business, then justify it. Justification in a business context is financial transparency. I think that resonates with everyday people given where our economy is and given the recent collapse in the financial markets. So if there’s a problem associated with the business of football, the best way to fix it is transparency. “D” has said it before, and I’ll echo his comments. If they open the books, we would have a deal done in no time. We’ve said to them privately, and we’ve said this publicly, if there are any leaks or problems with the system, and they can prove it, the players will make the concessions necessary to save the game. The problem is there’s an absence and a lack of information to demonstrate that. All the information available demonstrates the contrary. This is the most successful and profitable sports league in America.”
BI: Last week, Goodell called the NFLPA’s requests to see the league’s financial information “a negotiating ploy.” I assume you dispute that?
GA: “Well look, Bob Batterman on the record: financial information is “none of your business”; Jeff Pash, on the record, “They have all the financial information they need”; Roger Goodell on the record [for them to ask to open the books’ “is a negotiating ploy.” So which one is it? I can tell you the one it’s not, we don’t have the information. We don’t know what team profits are, we don’t know what team cash flow is, we don’t know what the costs for each team are, aside from the Packers, and that’s one 30-second of the information. What [financial] advisor would ever tell you to make a deal based on one 30-second of the financial information available? Nobody.”
BI: Do you foresee receiving the financial information as the most likely outcome of this situation?
GA: “I don’t know. I don’t know what the most likely outcome is. I try not to get into projections or predictions. It makes my job a lot easier if I can focus on what we know and the realities of our situation. So that’s what I tend to try to focus on. The reality for every NFL fan from the players’ perspective is that we want to, and have worked as hard as we can, to avoid a lockout and negotiate a fair deal.”
BI: In the past you have been hesitant to come right out and say about the 18-game season, but it’s been pretty clear that that’s been kind of a deal breaker on your end. You stance on that hasn’t changed?
BI: Is that something that could become negotiable in the future?
GA: “If there’s information or if they’re willing to consider the proposal we gave them on 18 games, then that’s a discussion starter.”
BI: How did you feel the NFL handled the seat debacle after the Super Bowl? Was it a distraction from the labour talks?
GA: “No, not really. If the people were outraged that they couldn’t get seats at the Super Bowl that they’ve paid for, imagine a world where season ticket holders that have bought season tickets for years, aren’t even able to get into the stadium because there’s a lockout.”
BI: That seems a like a logical next step for the “Let Us Play” campaign. Will you be publicizing more fan stories in the future?
GA: “The ‘Let Us Play’ campaign is ongoing. It’s a daily mantra for the players. Until we have a new deal…it’s a combination of open the books, and ‘Let Us Play.'”
BI: Do you think the media leaks help negotiations or does it just create bad blood on both sides?
GA: “The question about bad blood or whatever, here’s the reality: ESPN and the NFL recently negotiated a $2 billion extension for Monday Night Football. How many people covered those negotiations? How long did those negotiations last within the room? How did people feel about those negotiations? I’m asking those questions because you kind of know the answers. Two business partners decided to go into a room, there was a valuation for what the product was, there was some element of financial transparency, and they got it done. That’s how business partners negotiate. The owners opted our 1,050+ days ago. We had to twist their arm to send us a proposal in May of 2009. So, all of those questions to me are, irrelevant is too strong of a term, but they’re certainly not the core of what’s going on here. If the NFL can negotiate a $2 billion with ESPN without the hubbub, then what are we doing?”
BI: So what are DeMaurice Smith and the other leaders of the NFLPA doing in the interim, in between negotiation sessions?
GA: “Everything has been geared towards, every day we have our focus on two things, continue to prepare for the worst, and continue to work towards the best outcome. Raising awareness falls under both categories. We want to raise awareness to our fans that we want a new deal and that we want to negotiate, and that we want the best outcome. We want to raise awareness to our fans that this didn’t just start yesterday, and that it’s unfortunate that we’ve got to discuss a potential lockout given the success of the game. Those two focuses haven’t changed since March of 2009.”
BI: Do you think the fans are understanding your message?
GA: “I think so, I think they do. Our players are the best messengers, and as long as they’re engaged, our fans will be engaged. As far as I can see, and from what I know, they’re engaged.”
BI: Do you foresee negotiations within the next seven days?
GA: “I hope so.”
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