Bengals president Mike Brown, who slept in one of Pete Rozelle's offices when the NFL owners needed a slumber party to approve the AFL-NFL merger more than 40 years ago, has lived all of the league's work stoppages. Jerry Jones and Bob Kraft, his polar opposites in NFL ownership as members of the Latest Guard, have combined to be in none.
But Brown said Saturday ownership is united in the face of a lockout that began at midnight when the collective bargaining agreement expired just hours after the NFL Players Association decertified to send the NFL's first work stoppage in 24 years into the courts.
And with his team buffeted by crisis and transition in a frozen league, he urged patience as the almost Byzantine legal journey begins, saying the fans deserve answers and that he believes game will be played in 2011.
"The owners are very united. They are prepared to make this step because they know it is best for professional football in this country in the long run," Brown said in his Paul Brown Stadium office. "It is the fact from time to time if you don’t stand up to union demands you will get in trouble. We have seen that in industry after industry. Even the government with the public unions. We want to keep our business a healthy one for the long haul. We think it’s time that we have to stand up to do that."
Brown also hopes the two sides keep talking. He has seen it all before.
"I think we're just going to have to wait and find out. I certainly hope that it is as fast as possible because I think it deserves and needs to get back to negotiations," he said. "Just walking away from each other is not going to create a solution that works."
The Iron Curtain of a lockout showed its sharp edges of reality Saturday.
The Bengals sent letters to their players and e-mails to their employees informing them of a lockout. The day before the lockout, offensive players such as quarterback
And Bengals wide receiver
Then he offered a keyboard frown, which is what the owners did when the players left the table Friday to decertify. Brown thought the move showed that if the owners are all about business, so are the players. He noted that the owners offered to set up an $82 million fund for retired players, cut back on OTAs, and keep a 16-game schedule, all items the NFLPA wanted.
"It came down to the obvious point that all that mattered to the union was money," Brown said. "And these other things certainly didn't matter enough to weigh in the scale appreciably. When they make statements (that) it was a step backwards, it's not a step backwards for the veteran players.
"Our people at the end tried to split the difference. We understood the difference was $640 million and our people offered to split the difference and that was rejected. I don't apologize for the offer. These are guys that average, what, $2 million a year? It's a tremendous situation they have. And it has become burdensome for the teams. Yes, the teams are asking for some relief going forward. I don’t think that was unreasonable. Especially for the union's core constituency. The veteran players who weren't asked to take a step backwards at all."
Brown, a Harvard-trained lawyer, can run through all the legal scenarios. He thinks it could take a few weeks before the courts give the dispute direction. But he knows the fans don't want to hear it and they are more interested in the state of a team strait-jacketed in its roster.
"I know what the fans want; they want what we all want," Brown said. "I just ask for their patience as we work through it. It’s a difficult situation and I want us to get it resolved right, quickly and I can tell you players and owners alike have one thing in common – they want to play football. That’s going to weigh into the balance at some point and it will be good."
If there was ever a sign the lockout is here, it came when a question about quarterback
"I don’t want to talk about specific players," Brown said. "We’re not allowed to deal with the players and I’m not looking to send messages through the media or to the player or the public about a player. That’s a step too far under the ground rules we have with the lockout."
While Brown is counseling for patience in the wait for free agency and spring camps, he says the economic factors have trumped all things.
"Whatever issues we have preparing for the season, they are going to take second place to getting our structure firmed up the right way," he said. "I'm committed to getting this structure done right no matter if it inconveniences us in other ways."
Brown said the franchise is stable enough to survive a lockout that goes into the fall and indicated the club isn't laying off or furloughing employees.
"Our franchise has built up a considerable reserve," Brown said. "We have not paid one dime to our shareholders since we've operated in Paul Brown Stadium beyond what was necessary to pay taxes. We have put money where we would need it if we came to this kind of situation. We've had concerns for a long time that we could get to where we are now and we are prepared for it."
Brown said that should be good news for fans because he says economic viability is a key to fielding contending teams. While the franchise has undergone withering criticism in the wake of its second four-win season in three years, Brown pointed out the club is one of 14 that have won more than one division title in the past six seasons.
"We’ve been up and down over the last six years," Brown said. "They keep throwing figures out that you haven’t done as well as you should but recently we’ve done fairly well. I wish it was better. I wish we would’ve gotten into the playoffs and won more. That bothers us. We have not had a record that is unacceptable over the last half dozen years. I wish it was better but it was in many ways getting into the playoffs better than most. You need to be economically healthy in order to do that."
Brown, who was there at the creation when there was plenty of darkness before light in the late '60s, knows the light will be here.
"I've been through ups and downs in labor negotiations in the National Football League. I can say one thing is similar about all of them. At some point they do come to an end," he said. "And you get back together and go out and do what we do and play football. This one will be no different."