NFL Labor Dispute: First Thing We Do Is Get Rid of All the Lawyers

The biggest hurdle the NFL owners and players faced in their recent negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement was a failure to establish a "meeting of the minds." Why not dispense with the lawyers and hash it out face-to-face?
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It seems to me that the biggest hurdle the National Football League owners and players faced during their recent negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement was a failure to establish a "meeting of the minds."

That's legal jargon for "we couldn't see eye-to-eye."

But over the past few decades, history has shown that the only time the NFL and its players reached a meeting of the minds was when they were able to find common ground. I thought the relationship established by NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (I worked for each of them previously) was built on trust and mutual respect.

Fast forward to 2011, and the NFL is being represented by Jeff Pash, a very able and consummate attorney. Representing the players is newcomer DeMaurice Smith, a respected, hard-nosed litigator. And therein lies the problem. While Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was an attorney by trade, he doffed his barrister modus operandi for that of a partial, but reasoned, advocate.

No such soul-levying is taking place in New York. Both Pash and Smith are staying true to form. They have approached the negotiations as most litigators do, with their arguments in one hand and a court filing in the other. Would any other outcome reasonably be expected?

Both sides are also being represented by a number of other individuals who do not have legal backgrounds -- but the decisions are clearly being driven primarily by the lead negotiators, who, in this case, are seasoned litigators.

I analogize the situation to an injured player who consults a surgeon for advice. Rehabilitation is always an option, but don't most surgeons, by definition, believe surgery is the best way to permanently repair damaged knees? Don't we train lawyers to use the legal system as the ultimate forum for dispute resolution? How could the parties have ended up anywhere other than a courtroom?

My recommendation, therefore -- being an attorney myself -- is to "kill all the lawyers." Having worked both as a general manager and as an agent in the past, my experience has been that third parties are sometimes necessary to break a logjam between agents and GMs. While working for the Jacksonville Jaguars, I found myself in a dead-end situation with star quarterback Mark Brunell's agents -- Leigh Steinberg and later Frank Bauer. In both cases, I voluntarily removed myself from the negotiations and got the player to speak directly to the owner. Neither party was a professional negotiator, but each had a vested interest in the outcome.

In the few times I used this strategy, I found it was much easier to get over an impasse and ultimately reach a meeting of the minds. Perhaps that might just be what is needed here. Perhaps if we give both Pash and Smith a brief respite from the rancor of these negotiations (indeed, both sides have now resorted to name calling), something positive might happen.

Why not let Jerry Richardson or Robert Kraft sit face-to-face with Drew Brees or Peyton Manning (after all, they lent their names to this litigation) to work out a resolution. Somehow, I think, as in the case with Brunell, we would get back to playing football in the NFL sooner rather than later.

But then again, if the work stoppage helps the UFL gain some much-needed momentum, maybe we ought to keep it our little secret.

After all, boys will be boys. Or, in this case, lawyers will be lawyers.

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