There's nothing normal about these NFL labor talks 

One reason it’s difficult to predict what will happen next in the NFL labor strife: In at least one regard, this dispute is unlike any in the normal negotiating process.

“The one thing that strikes me is the union voting to decertify,” labor attorney Joshua Zuckenberg, partner in the New York firm of Pryor Cashman, told me in a telephone conversation.

“You would never see this in a normal labor negotiation. Unions fight to stay in business [as public employee unions are doing now in Wisconsin and Michigan]. They would never willingly decertify. But in this case, they know they can come right back when the new collective bargaining agreement [CBA] is in place.

“The other thing is that you have members of the union, the players, who can sue on their own. You wouldn’t have that in a normal labor situation because employees wouldn’t normally have the financial resources to do that. But these players have substantial incomes, so they can.”

Not to mention that they’ll get the attention of judges and the public because of their fame.

In the last strike-lockout situation in 1987, owners fielded teams with “replacement players” for the three games the strike lasted. That broke the strike, but it left a bad impression on fans, which is probably the reason NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said last week that the owners had not discussed using replacement players.

“Fans want to see Tom Brady when they come to Patriots games,” noted Zuckenberg, who has worked on both sides of labor negotiations. “They don’t want to see some player they haven’t heard of taking his place. And there’s also the difficulty of working together as a team in such a short time.”

Fan perception is very important here. The USFL failed in the ’80s, largely because fans perceived it as far inferior to the NFL. It wasn’t — and it was much higher quality than collegiate games, which were well-supported — but reality was less important than perception.

Similarly, in the third game of the strike in 1987, the 49ers drew only 38,000-plus for the third game, against the St. Louis Cardinals; the year before, they’d drawn more than 57,000 against the same team. The falloff was even more dramatic than those figures indicate because many of the season-ticket holders had stayed home.

So what’s going to happen the rest of the year? A big part of the equation will rest on two cases before the NLRB and a federal court. In the NLRB action, owners are alleging that the NFL Players Association made no attempt to negotiate seriously because it always planned to decertify and pursue the issue in the courts. Meanwhile, the players are charging in court that the owners deliberately took less money in their last negotiations with TV networks because they wanted to hold $4 billion back to finance the cost of a lockout.

The legal case is probably the more important because, if a judge rules in favor of the players, he could end the lockout. In effect, he’d be ruling for the fans, too, because it would mean the season would go on as scheduled.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on E-mail him at

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Glenn Dickey

Glenn Dickey

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