Susan Tose Spencer: Unlikely NFL Negotiations Doesn't Get Settled


I have spoken to so many football fans that have told me they would love to be a fly on the wall where the NFL negotiations are taking place. I thought that myself so I figured why not talk to someone who has participated in one of the most contentious NFL labor talks? I decided to speak with Susan Tose Spencer.

She was the Philadelphia Eagles' vice president, legal counsel and acting GM in 1984. In the strike of 1982, she kept the Eagle's books and was involved in the labor meeting. Both sides held firm for more than a month and nearly a third of the the NFL schedule was canceled and neither side was really satisfied with the ultimate compromise.

Five years later both sides once again battled over the question of free agency. Right now, last minute talks are underway as the NFL lockout looms. Susan offered me her perspective on the discussions.

LL: You were in negotiations for the 1982 strike. What was it like back then and do you think it is the same today?

STS: Football as with all professional sports- there is a lot of testosterone and an awful lot of egos. When you put that together in this kind of a context it is a really difficult situation. You have owners who are very high and mighty and they feel like they control the game, and you the players association who thinks its them. So you have this dichotomy, both sides who feel they each have the leverage and edge.

I saw it in the 1980's when the NFL owners hired a labor lawyer that was absolutely a guy from hell. I would have never used him as a lawyer. Not because he was not competent but because he was very rough. It was like he was dealing with a teamsters negotiation. Rough, foul mouthed, loud, demonstrative. Not the kind of approach you want to try and get something settled. Not that you want someone passive.

You want them strong, and with a quality of dignity to them. He had none of that. He was a kid from Boston, from the tough Irish side of Boston, and was very tough and was very dogmatic. That's not very pragmatic to settle something. I don't know what the personalities are of the legal representation now but it makes a huge difference because that person becomes your personification of who you are as an organization and he gets the message from them.

What I found during the player's negotiation was that they were loud, they were raucous they were rough and very contentious. Most of the owners were spiteful. They wanted the players to lose the entire season. They did not want to go back to football. They wanted to sweat them out for the whole season. And I understood the consequences of all of that because I wrote all the players contracts and negotiated them. I knew how it worked.

The players don't get paid until game day. They get paid game by game. So if they are not playing, they are not getting paid. There is no salary that is happening in-between. I also don't know how big the strike fund is this year.

If they have a big strike fund and they can pay the players something this hold out then they might have a chance to get more than they would get if they didn't have that. In the 80's the player's fund was very small and I think they used it up after the first game they didn't play so it didn't really hold over very well for them. They are not getting contract pay.

LL: Its been years since you have been in the NFL, what still resonates with you?

STS: I have see the brutality of the sport up close. I have traveled with the team when I was GM. I have seen them before the game and after the game.

I I saw them tapping up their broken fingers after the game, fixing their broken noses, popping their shoulders back in. Its brutal. I think the players deserve a fair shot, not the whole bank account, but a really fair shot at what's the equivalent for the kind of sacrifice you are asking them to make. Because as a practical matter, after football most of these players don't have a career to earn money.

So they have to be smart in how they save money and most of them are not. They need to have good managers and most of them don't have one, so I almost think the owners have an obligation to protect the players as much as they can. Just as if you were the CEO of a company and you want to make sure your employees have a good pension plan, health benefits for the rest of their life.

It should be the same. Just because it is sports and they earn a higher dollar short term doesn't mean anything. Those dollars are going to pay for a lot of aches and pains and arthritis and that pain and suffering is hard to measure.

LL: If you knew what you knew back then would have it altered your view on the deal?

STS: It's a give and take. No one is going to "win". Its a balancing act and you balance the interests of both sides. That doesn't mean that the owners have to win win win. That's not what's suppose to happen. In a settlement no one is happy because no one wins.

LL: Its getting really ugly. How likely do you think we'll see a Lockout.

STS: The gentlemen who took Gene Upshaw's place is not a player, he is a lawyer. I think it makes a big difference. I think when you have football players who are closely tied to the players association in an executive way, they understand what these guys are going to go through and they see it from both sides.

And Gene, although he was ferocious on the field, he was a tremendous advocate for the union and not ferocious as a human being. He was able to walk this fine line. I don't know from all these reports I've heard if this new representative has that same caliber of talent.

LL: So you think we are looking at the possibility of a lockout?

STS: I think there is more likelihood this doesn't get settled. Because its easier for someone new to the game to say, no that's not right, that's not fair. I think young people that are promising their union members a lot as lots of union leaders do, they might get them riled up to a point where they won't accept something that would be a lesser sum than where they will end up. I don't think its going to settle easy.

It's going to be a test to see who decides to put the white flag up first. That is not a good thing. It's not good for football, it's not a good thing for the sport.

Football is not meant to be on strike. It's very destructive to everything—the fans, the vendors, everybody loses in the strike. I'm not a pacifist. I would not be afraid to take them on, what my goal would be to reach a balance on both sides. They might lose a season if both sides want to get everything.

A Senior Talent Producer at CNBC, and author of "Thriving in the New Economy:Lessons from Today's Top Business Minds."


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