WASHINGTON NFL labor talks broke down just hours before the latest contract extension expired Friday. The union decertified, and players including MVP quarterbacks Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning sued the league, putting the countrys most popular sport on a path to its first work stoppage since 1987.
Despite 16 days of negotiations with a federal mediator and previous months of stop-and-start bargaining the sides could not agree on a new deal. The league said it hadnt decided whether to lock out the players, who, meanwhile, went to court to request an injunction to block such a move.
The parties have not achieved an overall agreement, nor have they been able to resolve the strongly held competing positions that separated them on core issues, mediator George Cohen said. No useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time.
By dissolving and announcing it no longer represents the players in collective bargaining, the NFL Players Association cleared the way for class-action lawsuits against the NFL, which opted out of the CBA in 2008. The antitrust suit attacked the NFLs policies on the draft, salary cap and free-agent restrictions such as franchise-player tags.
The CBA originally was set to expire last week, then was extended twice, in hopes that the sides could find common ground on the key issues: how to divide more than $9 billion in annual revenues and how much financial information the league would be willing to turn over.
In the end, it appeared the sides were about $185 million per year apart on how much money owners would get up front during the new collective bargaining agreement well down from the $1 billion that separated them for so long. The union refused to budge any further without getting detailed financial information for each team.
I would dare any one of you to pull out any economic indicator that would suggest that the National Football League is falling on hard times, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said. The last 14 days, the National Football League has said, Trust us. But when it came time for verification, they told us it was none of our business.
It all set the stage for a lengthy court fight that eventually could threaten the 2011 season for a league whose last two Super Bowls rank as the two most-watched programs in U.S. television history. The last time NFL games were lost to a work stoppage came when the players struck 24 years ago, leading to games with replacement players.
Even though the NFL is early in its offseason and the regular season is six months away this hardly is a complete down time. Free agency usually begins in March, and there are hundreds of free agents now in limbo. Also this month, under a regular schedule, offseason workouts would start, and the owners would meet to establish rules changes.
Plus, March and early April are when many sponsors and corporate partners renew their deals with the NFL, part of why the league says hundreds of millions in revenue are going to be lost now.
The sides met from 10 a.m. until about 4 p.m. Friday, discussing a new proposal by the owners. When the possibility of another extension was raised, the union said it first wanted assurances it would get 10 years of audited financial information.
I will tell you this: Any business where two partners dont trust each other, any business where one party says, You need to do X, Y and Z because I told you, is a business that is not only not run well, it is a business that can never be as successful as it can be, Smith said.
At 4:45 p.m., Smith and the unions negotiators left. About 15 minutes later, the union decertified.
No one is happy where we are now, NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said. I think we know where the commitment was. It was a commitment to litigate all along.
A league statement added: The union left a very good deal on the table.