Could there be any more poetic justice than that teams owned by Bob Kraft and John Mara should face off in the Super Bowl? Kraft and Mara were the two coolest heads in the owners' camp to save the 2011 season.
This marvelous season was worth the stress to fans who fretted last summer that America's passion would be un-indulged after the owners locked the players out of the building. While hard line owners like Jerry Jones and Jerry Richardson lobbed verbal fireballs at Peyton Manning and Kevin Mawae, Mara and Kraft were the voice of reason precisely when restraint was needed.
Carolina Panthers owner Richardson, then chairman of the powerful NFL Management Council, the league's negotiating arm with the players' union, advocated an iron fist to win concessions from the players. In February 2011 negotiations, Richardson in his best bad cop voice, mocked Peyton Manning's concern for player health. (Um, wait. WHAT?)
You cannot hit quarterbacks, even on the field of public opinion. The players dug in their heels and irate fans pointed fingers at the owners. The players renounced collective bargaining rights and sued the owners in March.
Enter Mara and Kraft
When U.S. Judge Nelson ordered the two sides to mediation, Mara was the first owner to join the discussion. A labor lawyer by training, Mara brought a change of attitude, stating an optimism that an agreement fair to both sides could be reached before the start of the season.
Fans remember Judge Nelson's April 25, 2011 ruling invalidating the lockout as a win for the players. But, the players were losing on the issue. The U.S. Eighth Court of Appeals stayed Judge Nelson's ruling three days later and reversed her ruling in July, hinting darkly that neither side, especially the players, would find satisfaction in its final ruling.
In June, league commissioner Roger Goodell named five members of the Management Council to negotiate for the owners. Hard liners Richardson, still the Council chairman, and Jones were in that circle, but so were Mara, who made inroads with the players a month earlier, along with Kraft and Steelers owner Art Rooney. Mara, Kraft and Rooney were among the few owners still trusted by the players.
Mara spoke from a sense that a deal fair to both sides would be done, even as leverage swung to the owners thanks to the Appeals Court ruling. Kraft, the league's most astute owner, painted the big picture of the broadcast revenue that would flow to the league, once the labor issues were settled, and the players' share to be gained.
The NFL signed nine-year extensions of the television contracts with NBC, CBS and FOX in December 2011 that will boost league revenue 60 percent through 2022. ESPN extended its agreement in September 2011 to broadcast Monday Night Football through 2021 for 73 percent more revenue than the current contract.
"We promised them we wouldn't let them [the players] do a bad deal," said Kraft. "Then to do these deals, they are the beneficiaries."
Kraft shuttled back and forth between labor negotiations and his wife's bedside. Myra Kraft was dying and the players knew it. If Kraft could find the way to talk graciously under trying circumstances, so could the players.
When the players and owners agreed to the final deal, Colts center Jeff Saturday singled out Bob for praise.
"A special thanks to Myra Kraft, who even in her weakest moment allowed Mr. Kraft to come and fight this out," said Saturday. Without him, this deal does not get done. ... He's a man who helped us save football."
“I don’t think anybody on the 10-member labor committee spent more time on it than John Mara,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told the New York Daily News. “During all the sessions we had in Washington, I think he was there for 20 of the 23 days. Then he was obviously in Minnesota and every other significant moment. He played a very critical role throughout the process, right to conclusion.”
Trust established is likely to continue. The owners selected Mara to chair the NFL Management Council, replacing Richardson. Kraft heads the broadcast committee. Together, they are the face of the owners on the two issues most important to players: labor relations and revenue growth.
Power brokers Robert Kraft and John Mara saved the Super Bowl. It is only fitting that they now try to win it.