Browns linebacker Scott Fujita sat in the meeting rooms. He listened to the mediator. He read the NFL’s proposals.
“The hardcore economics of a deal wasn’t even close,” he said Wednesday by phone from California. “The league’s proposals got worse as time went on.
“The NFL did a great job of spin control, manipulating the proposals (to the public). I don’t want to come out and call them liars, but that’s what it is. I know what slid across the table from both sides.”
Fujita refers to himself as “just a football player,” but he’s a Cal-Berkeley graduate and one of the most informed people on the planet when it comes to the acrimonious labor situation that has resulted in a lockout of the players by the owners. As a member of the NFL Players Association’s executive committee, he attended many of the 16 days of mediated negotiations that were unsuccessful in producing a collective bargaining agreement that would’ve prevented the league’s first work stoppage since 1987.
The sides moved closer on specific issues, but the split of revenues remained a giant stumbling block. The owners want a bigger piece of the pie ($9 billion in total revenues in 2010) and proposed to make player salaries a fixed cost, as opposed to dependent on the revenues as they are now.
According to Fujita, the owners predicted possible revenue of $25 billion a year in the next decade but capped how much would be given to the players.
“To me, 50-50 sounds pretty fair. That’s basically how it’s been since 1987,” Fujita said. “Not too far from now, it could be 25-30 percent of revenues.
“Guys wouldn’t take that. It’s something we couldn’t take back to the locker room.”
The owners refused to release the volume of financial data the players deemed sufficient to determine if the owners’ profits have been declining significantly, as the league suggested. Despite that, Fujita said, the players were willing to make concessions over the next four years to help stabilize the league’s finances.
“We gave a lot for owners to get back on track from whatever they were claiming,” he said.
When negotiations broke down, the union chose to decertify in order to file an antitrust lawsuit. The league followed by locking out the players.
The first court date in what figures to be a drawn-out legal battle is April 6 in Minnesota.
“If you want to see football, you should hope we win the litigation,” Fujita said. “I’m optimistic. We have the facts on our side. I think it’s a very compelling case in our regard.”
If the players get the injunction they seek and the league loses the appeal, the NFL would return to business, even without a new CBA. Free agency and offseason workouts would be allowed again. The players used lawsuits in the late-1980s and early ’90s to gain free agency, among other benefits.
“I know no one likes the idea of someone suing someone else or one class of person suing another,” Fujita said. “But it’s the best way to make sure the game’s played.
“Some of the biggest gains made by players came in litigation. It’s good for the game, good for the fans. I’m not going to be ashamed or embarrassed about it.
“At the same time, we’re open to settlement discussions. But that’s not what (the owners) want to do.”
Fujita flew to Washington for the negotiations. Then it was Florida for player meetings. He’s also on the computer a lot, e-mailing teammates every other day with updates.
He knows fans won’t shed any tears over his loss of quality family time, but wants them to know he believes in the cause. The players insist they just want to play, and that the lockout would cost NFL cities millions of dollars if games were missed.
“It’s so much bigger than just us, just the owners, just the fans,” Fujita said. “There’s a ripple effect.”
“I don’t know how fans are looking at it, honestly,” Browns cornerback Joe Haden said Tuesday before the Lake Erie Monsters hockey game. “From our perspective, we want to play. We’re not trying to steal — we’re not trying to get any money back, or anything like that. If we had it like it used to be, we’d be good.”
The public name-calling from both sides could have a lasting negative effect on the relationship between team management and their players. Fujita acknowledges that, particularly for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but said it won’t be a problem in Cleveland. He appreciates that the Browns promised no layoffs or pay cuts.
“They’re doing right by their employees,” Fujita said. “I talked to (president) Mike Holmgren and (general manager) Tom Heckert before the wire. We had great communication.”