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NFL Labor Agreement Shows How Effective Leaders Negotiate

It’s not routine for the world of professional sports to stand as a beacon of leadership. True, there are clichéd references to field generals and feats of athletic heroics. But just as abundant are the stories of dogfights and gunfights, of tawdry end zone antics and of greedy athletes holding out because $100 million simply isn’t enough pay for the burden of playing a game.

So it’s some surprise that the National Football League’s long labor dispute came, at last, to a bold and bipartisan resolution this week. After more than 130 days of lockout, NFL owners and the players’ association reached an agreement wherein each side gave a little, and both sides gained.

Owners gained an increase in their share of revenues, players earned concessions related to salaries, benefits and off-season activities, and the fans get a 2011 season that remains largely intact.

The debate was at times rancorous. But ultimately, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive Demaurice Smith represented their constituents with dignity, while negotiating genuinely with the other side. There were no major fissures or fractures on either side.

The owners voted almost unanimously (one abstention) to ratify the labor deal and the NFLPA executive committee unanimously endorsed the agreement.

Compare this with the debate in Washington over the debt ceiling and a debt reduction plan. Talks have broken down…repeatedly…and the tone is bitter, vindictive and self-serving. Politicians on both sides are locked in dogmatic, self-righteous bloodsport, bent on letting the other side take the fall. This is power used abusively; it is not leadership.

Yet there is hope. Hope was exemplified in the image of Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, a key negotiator for NFL players, embracing New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft in a hug.

Kraft, who was pivotal in forging the deal, lost his wife Myra to cancer on July 20, even as he worked to forge labor peace. The hug between Saturday and Kraft was not two adversaries signing a truce, but of two men – two leaders – recognizing there are more important issues than the divvying up of profits.

And if a league of bulked up gladiators and wealthy team owners can see that, perhaps there’s hope yet for those elected to serve.

What is your recollection of noble moments: where core values superseded greed and corruption, and then civilization got to play?