- - Sunday, March 15, 2020

The majority — the slim majority — has spoken. NFL players have narrowly approved the owners’ collective bargaining agreement proposal that locks them in for the next 10 years.

It was a surprisingly slim margin — 1,019 to 959 — and you have to wonder if some of the “yes” votes were influenced by this dark coronavirus cloud that hangs over all of us, and the reality of waking up to a world of uncertainty.

In those conditions, any certainty would seem attractive.

The new agreement means the schedule will expand to 17 games starting in 2021 and the playoffs will grow to 14 teams. The deal reportedly included a tough-to-resist sweetener for rank-and-file players — a 20% increase annually in minimum salaries — but divided the NFL Players Association, with stars like Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt opposed.

There are issues of safety and discipline that were not addressed, issues that players have voiced frustration about over the years. Those frustrations should be directed at the union that negotiated the deal and presented it to its membership. All management did was what anyone should expect them to do — squeeze every drop of blood out of the commodity known as players.

It’s what the owners have tried to do since the NFLPA, under the great Hall of Famer John Mackey, led the players on their first work stoppage in 1970 to secure a sliver of a decent pension.

It’s really where all this began, and always worth revisiting with every labor agreement.

I had the privilege of working with Mackey — who passed away in 2011 from dementia related to brain damage he suffered on the football field — on his autobiography, “Blazing Trails.”

Mackey was a true trailblazer — a black man leading a high-profile labor union in the wake of the social turmoil of the 1960s.

He was breaking new ground with NFL owners — standing up to them and not simply rubber-stamping deals the league had previously strong-armed through the union.

Mackey recalled one meeting on NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle’s boat in Bimini, when Mackey refused to drink with management, pouring out the booze on a carpet in the corner of a boat. “You’re not an honorable man,” Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm yelled at Mackey. “I’m going to take you out and feed you to the sharks!” Things got tenser when Mackey responded, “You’re going to throw me over? I’ll throw you over.”

That was nothing compared to the emotional blackmail Rozelle and owners tried.

When the legendary Vince Lombardi was hospitalized with colon cancer after a great first season coaching the Washington Redskins, Rozelle and the owners tried to use Lombardi’s fatal illness as a bargaining chip.

One night Mackey was having dinner at Duke Ziebert’s in the District with Sargeant Schriver, the former Peace Corps head who was making a run for president, when Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams came in. According to Mackey, Williams yelled at him, “It’s your fault.”

Mackey didn’t know who Williams was. They were introduced, and then Williams made his plea for labor peace, citing Lombardi’s cancer as justification. “I always wanted to be in business with Vince Lombardi, and now that we’re in business together, he’s dying … you’re killing him. You’ve got to sign the contract for the players.”

“It was a cold, calculated tactic by the owners to use Lombardi as leverage,” Mackey told me.

Then came a meeting with Rozelle at the Philadelphia home of Ed Sabol, head of NFL Films. Rozelle told Mackey, “Vince is dying. You know what that means? If he dies before you sign the contract, the public is going to believe that you killed him. You’ve got to sign it because he is the Kennedy of football. If you don’t sign it before he dies, everything is going to stop and we’re going to lose the whole season.”

Mackey wrote about another session in Rozelle’s apartment while they were watching the College Football All-Star Game with several NFL owners. The celebrated, revered, NFL commissioner told Mackey, “You know the only friends you have in the NFL are in this room.”

“I was thinking, ‘Man, if these are my friends, I know I’m in trouble.’”

They still aren’t the friends of the players. But they will continue to be partners for 10 more years starting in 2021 — a sharply divided union with members still asking some of the same questions John Mackey did 50 years ago.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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