NEWTON -- When it comes to the big story of the NFL offseason, the lockout, few in New England can offer Jack Mula's perspective.
Mula was a player agent in the 1980s and 1990s, representing Fred Smerlas, Doug Flutie and Priest Holmes, among others. Then in 1999, he joined the New England Patriots as general counsel/player personnel, staying with the franchise through the 2007 season and collecting three Super Bowl rings. Currently, he advises some of the elite programs of college football, including Auburn, Alabama, LSU and North Carolina.
So as someone who knocked down doors for his clients as an agent, then as a team staffer who negotiated contracts and represented management's best interests, and now as counsel to programs with top drafted players who are unable to join the teams that selected them, Mula is uniquely qualified to offer views from all sides of the negotiating table and litigation bench.
The Waltham, Mass., native, who has earned a reputation of tackling difficult challenges in a variety of roles, was asked to share his perspective with ESPNBoston.com, and obliged over a recent lunch at the Newton Marriott.
What are your thoughts on how this lockout has unfolded?
"[NFLPA executive director] Mr. [DeMaurice] Smith, being newly elected, started his mission by doing exactly what one would expect a seasoned litigator to do -- nothing, without first obtaining a thorough understanding of both the legal and business issues as well as the feelings of the players on these issues. As things unfolded, however, there seemed to exist an immense pressure on him to state his position [on the early termination of the CBA], perhaps sooner than he would have liked to. I'm sure this led to some heels being dug in on both sides from the get-go rather than an early exchange of how to best proceed towards resolution on the issues."
What was your perspective over the approach of ownership at that time?
"Their position was pretty clear to everyone; a provision existed in the CBA agreement that allowed for early termination of the agreement. This was negotiated and agreed to by the players association and the exercise of that provision was simply a business decision that meant both sides would return to the bargaining table a few years earlier than the stated end date. Commissioner [Roger] Goodell was also visiting with various teams and encouraging an open dialogue with players but he experienced some cold shoulders, which came as a surprise to some observers. I recall reports of his visit to Cleveland wherein player Scott Fujita, one of the more well-informed, educated player reps, had some harsh words for the commissioner. I'm sure the tone of that meeting, as exemplified by Fujita's words, surprised Roger. My feeling is that he was doing exactly the same thing as Dee was doing -- attempting to gain an understanding of the player's feelings on the issues."
What is your answer when some ask 'How could the sides be fighting over $9 billion?'
"If it was $3 billion, or $27 billion, I would answer the same way, which tells you it's not the actual figure so much as it is an identifiable trend behind that figure. Team expenses are increasing at a rate higher than revenues and this will eventually force owners into a position that no business owner desires."
Another big question this offseason is 'Will there be football in 2011?' While there has been a turn toward optimism of late, how do you answer that one?
"When the owners retained Attorney Bob Batterman, who was also retained by the NHL during their long work stoppage, it was understandable that the players' reaction would be 'This was their plan all along, they're forcing us out, they're willing to go for a year.' I don't think that was the intent. [Former commissioner] Paul Tagliabue, toward the end of his tenure, had said nothing that happened in the NHL is relevant to the NFL and I strongly agree with him. They are two entirely different leagues with different operating structures, different unions and certainly different owners. My answer is 'Yes, we will have NFL football in 2011.'"
Are you surprised there is no agreement at this point?
"It doesn't surprise me. In any negotiation, both sides need first to understand each other, not only their respective business and legal positions, but also the personalities and backgrounds of the people in the room doing the actual negotiating. First you start by listening to each other, really listening. Why do you think we were all born with two ears and only one mouth? Because we must listen twice as much as we talk. It's no wonder why my former boss [Robert Kraft] wanted the lawyers out of the room; how much listening do you think was going on with all the hired mouthpieces [laughing]? Seriously, it doesn't surprise me that we don't have an agreement at this point. There are many details to work out and lawyers will reduce everything to writing and only then will there be an agreement."
Where do you see things headed?
"When I heard Tom Brady say [four weeks ago] he was optimistic a deal could be reached, and then Mr. Kraft state he was hopeful of the same thing, that was very encouraging. If you add to that the recent news of private meetings away from the public eye, you are seeing the creation of a scenario where progress can be made. A tremendous opportunity exists for both sides to benefit from the popularity of the NFL and for each side to respect those who came before them both on and off the field. I don't think we will see any more fumbling. It's time to score."
We didn't hear much from you much during your time with the Patriots. What are your fondest memories there?
"Well, loose lips sink ships, my friend. Or as the great Bill Parcells said, 'We are in the business of information gathering and not information dissemination.' Honestly, my fondest memories are of the people; committed ownership, hard-working coaches, dedicated team players, and some truly talented individuals inside the organization. During my interview with Mr. Kraft he made it abundantly clear that our executive team was charged with three things -- a new stadium, a Super Bowl-winning team, and making Foxborough an entertainment destination. I'd say we accomplished all three and I'm proud to say I was a part of it. I will also always remember sharing the first Super Bowl win with [wife] Pam and the boys [Ryan, Christian and Evan] and a close dear departed friend, [Francis] "Bucko" Kilroy. I miss my daily meetings with him perhaps most of all. He was a giant in the game and in the front office, with a personality to match."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.