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Top Stories of 2011, No. 9: NFL lockout

12.23.11 at 12:00 pm ET

For the final 10 days of 2011, will count down the top 10 stories of the year in Boston sports. Our next entry in the countdown is No. 9: NFL lockout.

Check out our previous entry:
No. 10: NBA lockout

As the NFL regular season comes to a close, its easy to forget that the league was in the midst of a lockout just a few months ago. But the 2011 NFL lockout was actually the longest in league history, spanning 18 weeks and four days, from March until August.

Throughout the 2010-11 season, the threat of a lockout hung over the NFL, never taking the front stage, but always in the back of the minds of coaches, players, owners and fans alike. The 1993 collective bargaining agreement, which the owners had extended in 2006 by a vote of 30-2, was set to expire after the 2010-11 season.

The extension was originally supposed to last longer, but in 2008, the owners unanimously agreed to opt out of the CBA early. The owners seemed to think that the 1993 extension was unfairly in favor of the players. The deal gave players 59.6 percent of the league’s total revenue.

The timing of the 2006 extension was suspect to some owners as well, as then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was preparing to retire from his position. Many thought that Tagliabue was not willing to risk tarnishing his legacy by getting in a long, drawn-out battle with the players over a new CBA. So then-NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw got Tagliabue to sell the owners on the deal that extended the 1993 CBA and gave the players nearly 60 percent of the revenue.

But with Tagliabue gone in 2008 and Roger Goodell in the commissioner’s office, the owners voted to opt out of the CBA early. Just a few months after the vote, Upshaw died of pancreatic cancer, meaning the NFLPA would not be under his stern leadership for the first time since the 1980s.

That meant that new NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith would have to deal with a group of owners determined to hash out a CBA that would significantly cut the amount of total revenue the players received. In an owners meeting in March 2008, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who fired his own sons, reportedly told his peers, “We signed a [expletive] deal last time, and we’€™re going to stick together and take back our league and [expletive] do something about it.”

While the fiery Richardson was one of the owners leading the push for a new CBA, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was another owner who figured to be influential in building a new deal. The level-headed businessman had long been one of the most widely respected figures in the league as he helped build the Patriots into a dynasty in the early 2000s.

But even with Kraft in the mix, a lockout seemed imminent in 2011. Smith echoed these fears later on in December, as time was beginning to run out to reach a new deal.

“While I think it would be preferable to have a deal before the end of the year, the reality is we don’t have one,” Smith said. “We told every player to prepare for the lockout. We continue to see steps being taken by the league to prepare for that lockout.”

Other than looking to take a larger cut of the league’s total revenue, owners were also proposing an 18-game season, a rookie wage scale and drug testing for human growth hormone. The players were not in agreement with these proposals.

“What we have said is that the proposals that they put forward don’t address the health and safety issues,” Smith said in December.

The sides did not come any closer to an agreement through January and into February, when the Packers beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl. The CBA would expire on March 3 if an extension was not worked out before then. But when the time came, and no deal was reached, the owners and players agreed to extend the deadline for one week before the CBA would expire.

The extra week did not help, however, as negotiations again collapsed. The result was the players decertifying the union on March 11. Then 10 players, including Patriots Tom Brady and Logan Mankins and Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league. As a response, the owners locked out the players, creating the first NFL work stoppage since 1987.

A day after the lockout began, Kraft issued a statement concerning the work stoppage. Kraft said that the players walking away from negotiations and decertifying “showed their true intentions to take this process to litigation all along.” He ended his statement by saying he hoped that the players and owners would get back to the negotiating table soon.

The lockout meant that players could not be in contact with their teams in any way and players could not be traded or signed. The NFL draft was still allowed to happen in April, but teams could only trade picks, not players. And even if a player was drafted, he could not be signed by the team until the lockout ended.

Days before the NFL draft began, the players appeared to have won a significant battle in the legal process. U.S. District Court Judge Susan Richard Nelson granted the players’ request to end the lockout and ordered the league to resume normal operations on April 25. Teams would be forced to allow players to return to the facilities and be in contact with coaches. New work rules would have to be put in place quickly.

But the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals then granted the NFL a temporary stay of Nelson’s ruling on April 29 and the lockout was quickly reinstated. The stay would last all the way until June 3, when the full appeal was heard. Finally, on July 8 the court sided with the league, reversing Nelson’s decision and keeping the lockout firmly in place.

As the courts made their decisions, the situation looked bleaker by the day for fans of football. Kraft, who had been one of the voices of optimism throughout the lockout, admitted in May that he was concerned with the ongoing lockout.

‘€œOne of my concerns is that we not aggravate our fan base,’€ Kraft said. ‘€œThey don’€™t really understand and they don’€™t want to understand whether it’€™s the owners or the players. They just want to have football.”

As spring turned into summer, the effect of the lockout became more apparent, as players were still unable to attend organized team activities (OTAs) and the beginning of training camp in late July loomed. If the lockout was not resolved by then, training camps would also be pushed back.

But on July 21, the owners announced that they approved an agreement negotiated with the players. In a bizarre twist, the players said that they had not agreed to the deal and did not immediately vote on the agreement. On July 25, however, the 10 plaintiffs who had filed the antitrust lawsuit approved the settlement after more negotiations. The 10-year deal was ratified on Aug. 4. The lockout officially ended on Aug. 5 when Goodell and Smith each signed the agreement.

While it was the longest lockout in history, the only cancellation of the lockout was the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game. Each team still played four preseason games before the regular season began on Sept. 8.

And at the head of the negotiations that helped resolve the lockout? None other than Kraft, who was a leader in helping both sides come to an agreement despite the fact that he was dealing with the death of his wife, Myra Kraft, who passed away on July 20. Throughout the lockout, Myra had been battling cancer as Robert dealt with negotiations.

Colts center Jeff Saturday, an NFLPA player representative, praised Kraft for his role in ending the lockout while also tending to his ill wife and dealing with her death in the final week of negotiations.

‘€œA special thanks to Myra Kraft, who even in her weakest moment, allowed Mr. Kraft to come and fight this out,’€ Saturday said. ‘€œWithout him, this deal does not get done. ‘€¦ He is a man who helped us save football. We’€™re gracious for that, we’€™re gracious for his family, and the opportunity presented to get this deal done.’€

Kraft said that his philanthropic wife gave him permission to remain involved in NFL negotiations rather than always stay at her bedside as her health slowly deteriorated in the final months of her life.

‘€œThat’€™s the one thing I did for the last 4½ months before Myra passed, and it was with her knowledge. She knew how important this game was to America, and so she gave me a pass,’€ Kraft said. ‘€œThat was the only time I left her. We were focused in a way that was helping to do something with our team of people that is important to America. That was a good distraction, to be honest.’€

As a result of the efforts of Kraft and others, no important games were missed as the owners and players worked out the new CBA. The deal was a big change in many ways from the old deal that had been in place since 1993. The salary cap was dialed back to $120.375 million, down from $128 million in 2009, although teams will have exemptions to use over the next couple of years to ease the transition.

The rookie wage scale, a point of contention for the owners, also was changed, as top rookie contracts have been cut by more than 50 percent. The new deal also gives rookies who hold out less leverage in negotiating contracts.

A victory for the players was a 10-12 percent increase in the minimum salary structure under the new deal. But the players also wanted to change how the franchise tag works. Unfortunately for them, the new deal did not include any significant changes in a team’s ability to place a franchise or transition tag on top of a top player to retain his rights every year.

The new CBA is set to last the next 10 years. While it took a long time to work out the details, it appears that both sides were happy with the outcome. At the announcement of the end of the lockout in early August, Kraft, who had joked that politicians in Washington could learn a thing or two from the NFL negotiations, said he is confident in the new deal and its effectiveness in the coming years.

‘€œI’€™d like to apologize to the fans, that for the last five, six months we’€™ve been talking about the business of football, not what goes on on the field in each market,” Kraft said (full statement here). “But the end result is we’€™ve been able to have an agreement that will allow this sport to flourish over the next decade.”

Read More: DeMaurice Smith, Peyton Manning, Robert Kraft, Roger Goodell