Lockout Ending? Players Outmanuevered Owners With Their Own Lockout Tactic?

What the heck is this guy smiling at? Maybe those trump cards worth $200,000 each he had been hiding in his sleeves.

Reports over the last week have been as much of a roller coaster as they were a few months ago. They're close, no, someone was exaggerating. It's about the revenue split... that's solved... wait, no it's not. Wait, yes it is. Everyone wants a rookie wage scale, no not that version, our version. Scale? I thought we were locked out? Ummm, yeah I've been working out.

The back and forth left bloggers and mainstreamers (note the order) in a constant state of fear of penning an article, only to have to follow it with one including mea culpas and mini-retractions. Now it seems that most everyone is feeling confident about forecasting an end to the stalemate within the first few days of next week. Here's the rundown of the reported .

-- Various members of the league's executive committee have been in the New York meetings for the last two days, including Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

-- The next CBA is expected to cover a 10 year period.

-- The sides have agreed to a revenue split, rumored to initially be between 47 and 48% of all revenue (no credit off top).

-- First round rookies will have four-year deals with team options for year 5.  Option amount for top 10 picks (Tyron Smith) will be the 'transition tag' amount, average of top 10 salaries at the position. Top 10 amount is win for players, will be interesting to see salary levels which were reportedly to come down as much as 50%.

-- Sides still need to handle the settlement of the litigation (television money, Brady et al vs. NFL) which is expected to happen by Tuesday.

-- Also to be settled is a Legacy Fund for retired players, that may stretch into new league year and become an addendum. 

-- The sides will continue to communicate through the weekend via lawyers and conference calls. Face to face talks between the full negotiating teams resume next week in Minneapolis in front of mediator Judge Boylan.

-- (as reported by O.C.C. here) the owners have dropped their request for right of refusal on up to three players. They initially backed down to rights on two players, then pulled the demand outright.

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But how did we finally get here? What was it that sparked the sides to find common ground on issues they have bickered over, sometimes contentiously, for what seems like forever and a day? It appears that the players may have outmaneuvered the owners with a taste of their own medicine.

I came across this article by Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter that brought a sly grin to my face. Trotter suggests that the turning point in this recent round of negotiations was a trump card the players were holding onto until the last minute. I've seen NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith take a lot of heat for being an inexperienced labor lawyer that was only interested in ruining the league as we know it for his own glory. Of course, that was from people who probably considered themselves pro-owner in this ordeal. Even amongst those that would be identified as pro-player, few voiced support for Smith's abilities, even though they felt he was fighting for something just. It's a bit amusing then, if the reports are true, and Smith was able to out-leverage the owners in a setting outside of the courtroom.

The standing opinion on all things work stoppage related is as follows. Players want better treatment from ownership, a larger piece of the proverbial pie. Ownership wants to keep as much profit for itself as possible. Owners have leverage in that they are only 32 in number, and all billionaires to boot, compared to hundreds of players with varying level of financial savvy and long term planning. It is expected that the pressure of missing paychecks affects players much quicker than missing revenue does the owners. There really isn't any other way to say it, the owners expected the players to have to cave in. The players are only supposed to have leverage in a court setting, where history has shown the NFL to routinely skirt the labor laws of this country under murky antitrust exemptions. The most recent ruling was in favor of the owners, however, and future hearings would only take place after the schedule was affected.

There has been a genuine threat of the lockout extending into the portion of the calendar reserved for training camps and preseason games, possibly ones that count as well. Just when it appeared that the doomsday scenario was coming to fruition, as the sides continued to stand their ground, DeMaurice Smith pulled an ace from his sleeve and slammed it on the negotiating table.

From the moment he was elected executive director of the NFL Players Association in March 2009, DeMaurice Smith always took the long view when it came to negotiations with the owners on a new collective bargaining agreement. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

It's one of the reasons that slightly more than a year ago he received approval from the executive committee to secure insurance that would pay each player roughly $200,000 if there were no football in 2011.

Ha! I'd barely consider myself a chess player of any caliber, but I'd put that maneuver in the category of 'check, mate in three.' To put it in football terms, for the owners' that's seeing Emmitt come out after halftime with a separated shoulder but in full gear back in '93. Cowboy Alert: (watch video of it, here.)

"Players Association leadership looked into this as a last possible resort to keep players together in case games would be missed," one players-side source said of the insurance war chest. "It was never intended to be used as a bargaining chip or negotiating point until things became critical."

Thursday was a critical point. If the sides could not advance negotiations then the possibility of hundreds of millions of dollars being lost to canceled preseason games was real. And if the owners allowed the impasse to get that far, what was to stop them from testing the players' pain threshold by extending the lockout into the regular season?

DeMaurice Smith might have earned his stripes with that move, in a room full of old money, the only way to earn respect is to show  expertise of your domain, and that is negotiating genius if reported accurately. The players had already earned a court victory that tied up the lockout insurance the owners had sought for themselves via the current TV contracts. $4 billion is waiting inside the judges' quarters (not literally), of which the players are entitled a cut. They were asking for $2.8 billion for starters, but Judge Doty was waiting for the outcome of the other hearings to award damages. As Trotter pointed out, $200,000 to start with, plus a court award would have the players sitting just as pretty as the owners. Some may say even more comfortable than owners in smaller markets.

...a source close to one of them said the disclosure definitely got that side's [owners] attention. Perhaps for good reason...There's no way to know at this time whether it was the final oomph that pushed negotiations onto positive ground, but it's hard to believe it didn't have some impact considering the talks were "not in a good place" the previous night when the sides broke for the day.

As we approach a conclusion to a lockout that has lasted over four months, it feels like fan and media alike are starting to stretch their legs a bit more. The mid-summer winter solstice may be ending. The NFL world's molecules are accelerating, and we are all grateful. If DeMaurice Smith's timely disclosure was really the catalyst for getting over the final hurdle, then football fans everywhere might want to reevaluate their opinions of him.

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Let's take a look at the dates outlined in the NFL's Transition Rules if the league does reopen for business next Thursday:

July 21st - League year opens, players allowed into facilities and to have contact with coaching staffs

July 25th - Teams able to negotiate with UDFA's, their own draft picks and their own free agents

July 28th - Teams able to negotiate with other team's free agents

August 3rd - Teams must set rosters to 90 players

August 7th - First preseason game for the league

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