Last week, SB Nation NFL bloggers spoke with the two most important men in the most important sports battle we've seen in 20 years -- NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. You can read our story on Goodell here and our story on Smith here.
After about an hour of speaking with both men, here are a few of my impressions.
These are two completely different personalities working against each other. Goodell doesn't raise his voice. He has one tone and it's calm, cool and collected. He comes off as confident, calls you by your first name and generally puts you at ease by assuring you his plan is to make the game most enjoyable for fans. Smith is extremely confident as well but he has a different way of going about it. He's a lawyer, and that's plainly obvious as he's a smooth talker and very convincing with his arguments. We were talking about the economics of the game and as he was throwing numbers at me, I was scribbling them down just to keep up. By the end, I had no clue what I had written down but I believed Smith. He's good like that. He's big on superlatives like the "worst deal" in sports history and the "most important" issue is player safety. They're two opposite men essentially trying to achieve the same thing -- approval of their constituency with the next labor deal.
That said, they're also perfect for their respective organizations. Goodell is the leader of some of the richest men in the world. They have money and time on their side so there's a reason for confidence and they're not used to being wrong. He's a perfect match because he doesn't get too high or too low on any one subject, he knows their talking points on each issue and he's truly confident of their position. Smith is also the perfect man for the NFLPA. The players don't have money or time on their side so they need to act, be aggressive and stand up to the owners. In our conversation with Smith, he said the NFL's lead negotiator, Jeff Pash, has a "casual relationship with the truth." He's not afraid to be aggressive and he's not afraid to attack.
Both sides say they want to negotiate but neither side will start the process. We know the owners want to negotiate before the April 6th court hearing to block the lockout. They've said so repeatedly and made it clear to anyone who listens that they're ready to get back to the negotiating table and it's the NFLPA holding things up. Smith told us that the league has to make the call to them. "As class council we can sit down and negotiate with the league at any time, and I think instead of Roger sending a letter to players referring to us as a union, my guess is he's got a couple of lawyers who are smart enough to read the complaint, and call the lawyers who are on the complaint, and ask to sit down and negotiate." The league, for all their talk of wanting to negotiate, apparently hasn't asked the players to do so.
The media attention is so intense I think it's nearly impossible to do a deal without the courts. If you're a football fan (and if you're not then why are you reading this?) then you understand the significant media attention the lockout has received. It's the biggest story in sports -- though March Madness would argue -- and every major media outlet has been all over it. Neither side can afford to be wrong. There has been so much finger-pointing suggesting the other side isn't negotiating in good faith that when a deal does finally get done, we're going to assume one side caved. Neither man is ready to have the finger pointed back at them.
The fans do have a voice and it's SB Nation. OK, so this is a little bit of self-promotion but the fans do have a voice in this mess. We may not have a seat at the table with actual decision-making power, but both sides do care about our voice, if not for the sole reason that our voice can be used to pressure the other side. That's evidenced by our conversations with Goodell and Smith. We are the voice of the fans and both men wanted to spend some time talking with us so that we, the fans, understood where they were coming from. This is no longer a world where newspapers get exclusive time with the two most powerful men in the NFL. As you can tell with the public relations battle we've seen over the last two years, the fans are a very important part of the labor battle and SB Nation