The Gloves Come Off

Send lawyers, guns and money,
The shit has hit the fan - Warren Zevon

After weeks and weeks of dancing the minuet like so many powdered and bewigged 17th century poofs, MLS CBA talks took a decidedly ugly turn on Friday.

Suddenly, instead of happy talk about "constructive" discussions and "areas of agreement", MLS and its' Players Union dropped the gloves and are now having at it for all the world to see.

Until now, the two sides have shown considerable, even heroic, restraint when it came to making public statements characterizing the status of their contract talks.

It got so apparently warm and cuddly that most fans had begun to believe (led on by a particularly unscrupulous blogger) that it was all basically smooth sailing behind those tightly closed doors. Any moment, we expected to see the negotiators, smiling ear-to-ear and standing arm-in-arm in front of the ESPN microphones as they announced Peace in our Time.

Then on Friday afternoon, without warning, the bottom fell out of the tub.

IVES GALARCEP passed along news of the kind of gauntlet-tossing that we have been dreading:

According to multiple sources, MLS has yet to budge on issues ranging from free agency to team control in player personnel decisions, making a work stoppage a very real possibility with the 2010 MLS season just a month away.

From Pat Onstad:

"We feel the league's not taking us very seriously at all...We're pretty far apart at this stage."

And if that wasn't be enough, there was this:

"All I can say from our standpoint, from the player's standpoint, is that we're ready for a work stoppage...We're very unified and the guys are adamant that there needs to be major changes in the CBA and right now it's just not on the table, and as far as we're concerned, we don't want to play under those conditions."

And in case you missed the point,JEFF CARLISLE passed along some "leave no doubt" comments from Jimmy Conrad:

"We feel like we've made a huge effort to be reasonable, to propose things that are within the confines of the single-entity structure...At this point they're not even humoring us with something tangible. If things stay where they are, then it's inevitable that a work stoppage is going to happen."

As for any hope that the coming week would be more fruitful than the last, Onstad questioned whether the meetings would even take place:

"We'd just be negotiating against ourselves. What's the point?"

And Conrad chipped in:

"If we did have a meeting I don't think our side would be doing too much talking. We'd probably just hear them out, and then that would be it."

As far as the leagues' latest proposal, delivered last Thursday, Conrad was dismissive almost to the point of contempt:

"The major issues need to be addressed in some fashion. To simply cast them off as no big deal and think we're going to accept what they're going to propose is preposterous."
And for punctuation, Todd Dunivant is quoted as saying that the "likelihood of the two sides agreeing to another extension was 'close to zero"'.

For their part, the league refused to get into a public pissing match, with league Communications Guru Will Kuhns offering up the following:

"The negotiations are ongoing. Meetings are scheduled for next week between the league and the union and the deadline on those negotiations is February 25. We're hopeful for a mutually beneficial conclusion."

Unfortunately, the Good Ship High Road, the one with the smiling hostesses and the "We Don't Negotiate in the Media" ethos, had sailed, a fact that MLS President Mark Abbott tacitly acknowledged on Saturday when he too dropped the Marquis of Queensbury ruleset and came dangerously close to calling the players liars:

FROM GOFF:

"Our view had been that the most productive way to negotiate a CBA had been in the bargaining room across the table from the players' union and not to do it publicly. Obviously, the players made a decision to take a different path. I am struck by a number of inaccuracies and misrepresentations."

You can almost hear him chambering the first round in his .12 gauge as he says that the league has offered an additional $60 million in compensation over the life of the agreement, adding:

"We do that despite the economic troubles in the country and frankly despite the fact that our teams continue to have significant financial struggles and our owners continue to lose significant money.

"We have made a proposal that would guarantee not all, but a significant number of player contracts. We have made a proposal limiting the number of unilateral options the league can have in player contracts. We have made proposals in several other areas as well."

As for the free agency issue, Abbott repeats the position that the league has been telling everyone who would listen for long enough that it's almost like they, you know, mean it: they aren't giving it up, period.

However, with regard to the reserve clause, he said "We have made specific proposals on how to deal with that and in ways that you do not need free agency. We may want to bargain with those proposals, but we have made them."

And in case you missed the point of all of this, Abbot drew a double line:

"To characterize the league as not taking the players' concerns seriously is just factually incorrect."

Then, later in the day, Abbott issued AN ENTIRELY UNAMBIGOUS STATEMENT regarding the "lockout" that has been all the buzz ever since Kasey Keller made up the threat and FIFPro retailed it, back in November:

"We've communicated that the league doesn't have any intention of commencing a lockout".

Union Chief Bob Foose has, as of right now, issued no corresponding "no strike" promise.

Remind me not to play poker with Mark Abbott.

Basically what happened here is that the Union figured they would up the ante a bit, and MLS looked them square in the eye and laid down a pretty hefty raise. Back atcha, Bob.

Foose apparently made a strategic decision to let his guys open up to the media, which they were probably itching to do anyway, and they gleefully let loose with both barrels. It seemed almost cathartic after months of making nice.

It may be that the league was taken a bit by surprise. Kuhns' statement on Friday was, basically, a refusal to engage the players in the media, a policy they've held fast to low these many months.

But by Saturday they apparently decided that they couldn't just let the players' charges simply lay there without a response. There was nothing to gain, and a lot to lose in the court of public opinion, by remaining silent.

So they trotted out Mark Abbott, a very big wig, who more or less categorically refuted everything the player reps had said.

But while he had the figurative microphone he used the opportunity to go over the reps heads and speak directly to the rank and file players.

When you steadfastly refuse to "negotiate in the media" as they say, you do in fact deprive the unwashed masses of the details of what's going on, but you also deprive the players as well.

Other than a small handful of guys who are privy to the negotiations, the vast majority of union members get all of their information from the Union leadership. So, in all probability, the players have been hearing the same "MLS isn't taking us seriously, they aren't negotiating, they're not giving us anything" palaver that they peddled to the media.

But by playing the media card, they handed MLS the opportunity to deny it, and it was the players that Abbott was speaking to, not you and I.

Above all, one thing has become crystal clear:

MLS is not going to budge on free agency. They're maybe willing to tinker around the edges a bit here and there but mostly they feel it's crucial to the operation of the league and they are not, not, not going to give it up.

And I think they're making it clear that the players can strike until hell freezes over and they're not going to get it.

There is at least one piece of real progress you and I have gotten out of this escalation in the temperature:

The word is "strike", people. Not "work stoppage". Not "lockout".

"Strike".

If the league is going to go dark it's going to be the players who initiate it.

So what the players have done, after the smoke clears, is given every writer, blogger, journalist and Ontario-based fantasist a question that they can now ask every single player, every chance they get:

"Will you strike?"