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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Getting real about what's at stake

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?

Mediation is a skill that requires patience, fortitude and wisdom. But when it comes to mediating between NFL owners and NFL players, I would add something even more important--an ability to act serious when all you want to do is laugh out loud.

Consider for a moment.

We have 32 ownership groups and fewer than 2,000 active roster players. None of whom can agree on how to divide $9 billion in television revenues. Get real. Forget the fact that such a sum could be put to better use--or any use--other than keeping billionaires and millionaires happy.

Nowhere on the planet is so much energy being expended when so little is at stake. True, $9 billion is a great sum of money, but the reality is that owners have already staked their claim to the first billion and now are simply negotiating over how to split the remaining $8 billion.

Right now the players want to maintain the 60/40 split: $4.8 billion for players, $3.2 billion for owners. A 50/50 split guarantees $4 billion for each. This means that both parties are fighting over a difference of $800 million, not the full $9 billion.

Yes, there are peripheral issues like a rookie salary cap and a proposed 18 game schedule. Likely the first will pass (players don't want unproven players making more than they do), and the second will die (fans want quality competition not more games).

Therefore the negotiation process is little more than public theater--albeit behind closed doors. Cynics might call it a charade; skeptics might call it "manufactured" publicity to keep the game in the public eye.

The challenge for George Cohen as mediator is to apply his well-honed skills as a negotiator to instill a common sense on the proceedings.

After all if a mediator cannot feign patience with owners who live for the spotlight, fortitude with players who act as if a million-dollar salary is a minimum wage, and wisdom for both parties who seem clueless, then what hope is there for a settlement?

Cohen will need all the resolve he can muster to help both parties understand that negotiating revenue split is easy compared to what might come next.

The most serious issue facing the NFL has nothing to do with money; it is player health. As medical evidence mounts about the destructive nature that a game rooted in collision wreaks on the brain mounts, owners, managers, coaches and players need to focus on ways to protect players.

Otherwise future rounds of collective bargaining will not require mediation because television executives will not want to pay licensing fees to a sport that no one wants to watch.

And that's no laughing matter.

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By John Baldoni

 |  March 8, 2011; 10:14 AM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Baldoni hit the nail on the head. Although he is less specific of what Cohen must actually do, let's face it he's not bringing world peace or solving global warming. What's 800 million dollars between friends? Seriously though most members of the NFL are probably doing fine financially even in this recovery. In fact, I can only think of two related instances where any change in salary might be significant. Certainly Peyton Manning is not holding his breath for his next paycheck. Second and third string players, who commit as much time to the season as any other players(negating the possibility for other employment) are paid often as little as $100,000 a year. While this salary doesn't seem like a problem, consider that the average NFL career is less than 3.5 years; the earning potential for a 26 year old, who probably was too preoccupied to be focused on academics in college and no experience in the workforce are probably less promising. The brevity of their careers makes it necessary for many NFL players to acquire the most income they can, when they can. Additionally, the player's association needs to provide for a growing, increasingly aging and ailing group of retired players. However, the spread of this 800 million would likely result in pretty marginal, and ultimately inconsequential, gains across the board. The owner's argument is even less convincing; these multi-million or billionaires hardly depend on their teams to provide for their well being. I understand there are other concerns, such as precedent, etc., involved. But honestly, lets just play football. No football, no ad revenue, no $800 million to argue about in the first place...

Posted by: sheppatterson | March 9, 2011 8:57 PM
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blah, blah, blah...their bearing witness (or is that witless) to said contests, I can only weep for the future of our civilization.
Posted by: rkersh | March 9, 2011 4:21 AM

That was the most eloquent way I think that I've ever heard someone say, "I think that Professional Football is stupid." What amazes me is that you could even deign to take the time to post the above statement about something that you hold in such contempt. Those who like the NFL and hope for resolution to the negotiations will not be swayed by your rant, so descend from your soapbox and make your arguement to those that share your sentiment. Good luck.

Posted by: mford7522 | March 9, 2011 8:49 AM
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blah, blah, blah...their bearing witness (or is that witless) to said contests, I can only weep for the future of our civilization.
Posted by: rkersh | March 9, 2011 4:21 AM

That was the most eloquent way I think that I've ever heard someone say, "I think that Professional Football is stupid." It's amazing to me that you could even deign to take the time to post the above statement about something that you hold in such contempt. Those who like the NFL and hope for resolution will not be swayed by your rant, so descend from your soapbox and make your arguement to those that share your sentiment. Good luck.

Posted by: mford7522 | March 9, 2011 8:46 AM
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I would think with prices for tickets, parking, refreshments and the assorted junk sold in the name of the NFL, not to mention the enormous bux awarded to these unfeeling morons from tv contracts and the myriad of other riches in the name of "sport", the followers of these ludicrous goings on would be fed up enough to produce their own walk out, at least for the opening round of pre-season fiascoes where they will be further bilked of their hard earned dollars. However, when I see "grown adults" paint themselves half naked with colors only befitting a never to be visited basement makeover, wearing ludicrous items of apparel, standing exposed to subzero elements in an area of a stadium after shelling out an outrageous portion of their weekly dole from an equally ungrateful employer, just to be able to brag of their bearing witness (or is that witless) to said contests, I can only weep for the future of our civilization.

Posted by: rkersh | March 9, 2011 4:21 AM
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This is an issue that matters only because of the volumes of money at stake. It is true that this is merely deciding if the money goes to bilionaires or millionaires. Cohen probably realizes that greed is the only driving force here. That being said, there is little common ground to be had since more for one necessarily means less for the other. As for the other issues, they seems small in comparison. If a resolution is to come about quickly, Cohen must be a great leader, for he has no authority, and no ability to coerce. Unfortunately I suspect the negotiations will come to an end only when both sides feel that continuing will only hurt them both. It is unlikely that logic will drive a settlement, ethics are not involved, and it is not likely that either side will feel charitable. They could realize the impasse of their situation and then end it with a compromise that ultimately means very little. But then they would not feel like they were standing strong for their "official policy." This leads only to a test of willpower, and ends when one feels the negative impacts more.

Posted by: alexdobranich | March 8, 2011 3:04 PM
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"Nowhere on the planet is so much energy being expended when so little is at stake."

I completely agree. If the amount of money were not so great, this would quickly be seen for the tempest in a teapot that it is.

Personally, I think we would all be better off if the NFL and its moneygrubbing owners vanished from the face of the earth. Surely football widows across the nation would dance in the streets, families might spend more time together, and the ridiculous amounts of money it costs to actually attend a game would surely be better spent elsewhere.

Posted by: GordonCash | March 8, 2011 1:34 PM
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