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Rice University Undergraduate Leaders

Rice University Undergraduate Leaders

This post is written by students in Professor Michael Lindsay's leadership course at Rice University.

Cooler heads prevail

Question: At the center of the labor dispute between NFL owners and professional football players is George Cohen, a federal mediator known for his work in helping Major League Soccer come to a resolution over its own labor battles. Mediators have no power or authority to compel either side to do anything, but they still have the capability to influence the outcome in nuanced ways. What must Cohen do to bring the more uncompromising members of both sides together to make a deal?

When George Cohen approaches the negotiating table, he may not have the power to force specific policies, but he can influence the parameters by which negotiations are conducted. In order to bring the two sides together, it is important that Cohen establish the appropriate proceedings. In doing so, Cohen is able to exert a level of influence that makes up for his lack of leverage.

Setting the negotiation table
When two sides begin negotiating, both want to walk away feeling victorious. In this case, both the players and the owners need to be able to leave the negotiations with a sense of success. In order to help accomplish this, Cohen must be a trustworthy confidant of both the players and the owners; both sides must feel that Cohen is a mediator working for their benefits. While Cohen should work to represent both sides' interests, he also needs to be conscientious about maintaining objectivity. As a mediator, his effectiveness largely depends on this impartiality.

Cohen also needs to set the ground rules for what the negotiations look like. The nature of these talks can be tense and, at times, combative. However, maintaining a sense of positivity can minimize this aversion. Thus, it is important to emphasize maintaining a positive regard for one another as a fundamental part of the process. Finally, Cohen needs to continue a closed-door policy throughout the negotiations. Limiting leaks to the media deters the sensationalism that often derails true progress.

Meeting in the middle
Cohen must help the players and owners establish realistic goals and objectives. One of the greatest challenges he faces is moderating the hard-liners on each side. In particular, Cohen must pursue intra-group negotiation prior to inter-group negotiation. He should approach both the NFL Players Association and the NFL owners and encourage each side to agree on the major issues within themselves. This will facilitate a pragmatic ordering of priorities for both sides while also providing an avenue for sensible discussion.

Addressing the uncompromising members from both sides in the preliminary stages will allow for more effective consensus-building later in the inter-group discussions. It is important for powerful emotions to be "checked at the door" to ensure clear-headed and rational talks.

An effective means of promoting this behavior would be to appoint a small number of representatives for both parties. These individuals would fulfill three important criteria: a desire to reach consensus, an ability to temper unreasonable expectations and a well-respected reputation by both parties. The prioritized goals then can be put forth and assessed in a constructive environment.

Vehicle for resolution
Finally, Cohen must try to align opposing goals and develop opportunity for consensus. It is important for him to emphasize a common purpose and clearly outline the steps that both sides need to take in order to achieve a positive result. This requires building a purpose that is outside of selfish objectives; it is understanding the larger impact that the failure to compromise will have.

Cohen should advise both sides to put emotions and vitriol aside in order to ensure that cooler heads prevail. He should encourage all to understand the sentiment amongst fans and other staff, recognizing that this issue extends far beyond the players and owners. Lastly, he must get the parties to come to terms with the consequences of failing to come to some sort of resolution.

While Cohen may not be the architect of the actual solution, he can play an important role in having the owners and players come to an agreement. He must establish an efficient framework by which the negotiations can proceed. By establishing these parameters, he can wield informal influence as someone who controls the flow of information despite his lack of leverage. But in order to move towards an actual solution, Cohen likely will have to force the two sides to align their goals with respect to a common purpose. If Cohen can do this, he will have played an instrumental role in preserving the NFL's 2011 season.

Authors: Mark Brundage, Jon Endean, Meghan Erkel, Colleen Fugate, Victor Hogen, Matt Wasserman

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By Rice University Undergraduate Leaders

 |  March 9, 2011; 4:50 PM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Cohen's goal as mediator should not be to meddle in the problems of the owners and the players, but to stay on the sidelines and coach from afar. Although it is difficult for a go-between to not get entrenched in the bickering, he should, as suggested, maintain as positive an atmosphere as possible during the negotiations, as neither side wants to feel attacked during the proceedings. Cohen should set guidelines for compromise for the groups; for example, all requests made during the negotiations must be legitimate, rational, and reasonable. Cohen must remember to stay detached from the arguments, lest the two sides feel that they are being slighted by their own mediator. He should act as the voice of reason and refrain from interjecting his own opinions and ideas into the conversations. Only in these ways will Cohen succeed in his role as mediator.

Posted by: catherineyuh | March 11, 2011 2:41 PM
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George Cohen, as a mediator between two relatively uncompromising forces within the NFL, had undoubtedly found himself in a rather difficult position. At times, it seems as though he may not have much power at all in convincing either side to reach an agreement; however, a closer look will tell otherwise. As the one individual who is trusted by both sides of the debate, Cohen does indeed possess a large quantity of power - specifically, he is perhaps the only person who is capable of compelling both sides to work together. In terms of compromise, I feel that it would be in Cohen's best interest to offer certain terms. Rather than focusing on how "much" either side would be able to win in proposing a compromise or deal, he should emphasize that further delay in cooperation between the two constituents would only result in losses for both parties; this continued game of selfish waiting would undeniably be far worse than any form of agreement that could be quickly reached by the NFL players and executives. If George Cohen were able make that message clear, he may have an easier time in persuading both sides to resolve the dilemma.

Posted by: AngelaGuo | March 11, 2011 2:27 PM
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Cohen indeed has the potential to play a pivotal role in shaping the perspectives of each party to come to a reconcilable playing field. He has a diverse choice of tools to accomplish this, and addressing intra-group cooperation, as Brundage et al. suggest here, is an intriguing conservative option that would allow for better control of the hardline elements at the negotiations table. Depending on his skill as a mediator, he might prefer to wrest those elements into a more moderate line at the table, playing them against one another to shape a common ground perspective for both parties. Whichever he chooses, he will have strong influence over the emotional and structural framework within which this dispute may be resolved. His strategy to accomplish this should reflect his personal strengths as a mediator.

That being said, these millionaires and billionaires might notice the current state of the economy and jointly inspire to make a good PR move and a philanthropic contribution to the nation. Admittedly football is a physically harsh sport and players' careers are short, but the millions that these players earn could, with good financial sense, last for a lifetime; and the billionaires have even less financial need, even for $800 million.

Posted by: JustinNg | March 11, 2011 2:26 PM
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It seems that, due to the amount of disagreement even within parties,it would be wise for George Cohen to begin by encouraging those with varying beliefs within each party to come to some sort of compromise. When agreement has been achieved within the parties, it should be much easier to conduct meaningful conversations and debate between parties.
In addition to this, I believe Cohen should meet with the leaders of each party and offer them a sort of vision of what failure to reach an agreement will mean for both sides; namely, forfeiture of A LOT of profit for the players, owners, and NFL executives alike. It is important that both sides realize that petty arguments over very minute issues facing the NFL could result in the loss of billions of dollars for the industry, as well as potential loss of interest and trust in the sport from their consumer population if a lockout ultimately winds up being the outcome of these negotiations.
With a focus on intra-party agreement as well as highlighting the huge downsides for both parties if an agreement is not reached, I imagine Cohen could jump-start negotiations and ensure more efficient debate, decreasing the tension and frustration that is present in the current state of negotiation.

Posted by: DavidSims92 | March 11, 2011 2:12 PM
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No one wants to be the middle man. Being in the middle of an argument means that you are throwing yourself into the position of, possibly, taking the majority of the blame. In Cohen's situation, he has been tossed into the role of influencing a decision that apart from obvious monetary gain, he has nothing to gain, but everything to lose. What is most critical of Cohen, is not to take the role of influencing the decision, but rather to serve as a mediator for both sides. In being a mediator, his most critical job is understanding what each side really wants to say to the other, because neither wants to be in this situation. Both need the other. Cohen's job is to make sure that both of them realize that they both want to make a fair agreement, because both parties benefit most, when both sides are happy. One thing that needs to be stressed, to both parties, is that sports are a $400 billion dollar industry - meaning that they both have a lot to lose, if they don't work towards making both parties happy.

Posted by: hkaitchura | March 11, 2011 2:03 PM
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While Cohen has no power in influencing the specific terms of the deals and contracts made, he has a lot of power in influencing how both sides perceive the deals and what they are expecting to receive out of the deals. Cohen must stress what the sides have in common and ways that they can both benefit from these agreements, and should start with less controversial topics to demonstrate that there are things that they both agree on. No negotiations can be made while one or both sides feel like they aren't getting a good deal.

Cohen's task is to align the goals of both sides, and must be able to convince both sides that he is working for them, and not the other side. Each side will be receptive to Cohen's plans when they feel like he is trying to make the deal better for them.

Posted by: AJohannigman | March 11, 2011 1:49 PM
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I especially agree with the authors that Cohen should make clear the consequences of not reaching an agreement. There is no money to be made sitting out. Also, the reputation of the NFL will be damaged for a long time like Major League Baseball was after its strike in 1994-1995. The owners would risk losing interest from moderate fans.

Starting off with non-controversial issues is always a good start. Both players (especially veteran players) and owners want to cap rookie salaries. Reaching an agreement on anything is a good relationship builder. Cohen can then move on to more difficult issues.

Cohen’s most difficult task will be getting the hard-liners on both sides to realize that they will not get everything they want out of the new collective bargaining agreement. Both groups will have to sacrifice. Cohen might be able to use give the players and owners an extra feeling of greater purpose by convincing both parties that they need to reach an agreement for the greater good of the American people. Rhetoric like that, while it is a little melodramatic for my taste, can inspire people to work together believing that they are responsible for millions of fans. With the unemployment situation in the United States in mind, the millionaires and billionaires might, just might, be inspired to sacrifice.

Posted by: PlacidoAGomez | March 11, 2011 1:30 PM
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Though mediators may not have direct power in decision making, they do have the power to compel both sides. Often time, the President of a nation must act as a mediator. With the health care debate still a hot topic, President Obama had to act as this mediator while speaking to the nation during the State of the Union. He did so by stressing what the opposing sides have in common as well as their mutual goal. In the case of the NFL labor dispute, Cohen should take from President Obama's example and stress the fact that ultimately both sides want the same thing. However, to reach this goal, compromise is a must. With the NFL being a very large organization, it would not appear vain if members decided to partition each other off into groups with different view points and appoint someone to speak for the group, similar to government. This would be a good first step in making the negotiation process it bit less chaotic and a lot easier for Cohen to handle.

Posted by: NneomaElendu | March 11, 2011 12:22 PM
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