Labor issue about to blow up on NFL

In homage to one of television’s greatest action shows, here is a 24-style way to view labor negotiations between the NFL and its players union.

T-minus 280 days and counting until the Collective Bargaining Agreement explodes — and not even Jack Bauer can keep this bomb from detonating.

Forget about the Mayan calendar predicting doomsday in 2012. I’m talking 2011 apocalypse for football-starved fans until a new agreement is reached.

Just look at next offseason, potentially:

  • There will be a college draft, but no rookies minicamps or OTAs.

  • No free agency excitement.

  • Delayed annual April schedule announcement.

  • Training camps starting late or getting truncated.

  • And in a worse-case scenario, the impasse could cause the first cancellation of games since 1987.

Boom.

After attending this week’s NFL spring meeting in Dallas, I’m even more convinced we’re in for a labor stoppage that will continue long after the current CBA officially expires on March 4, 2011. No substantive negotiations between the two sides have occurred in months. They are scheduled to meet again in a few weeks, but both parties face a slew of complicated issues that are a long way from being settled before a new CBA is ratified.

Among them:

New revenue-sharing system — The NFL wants to reallocate a portion of funds currently paid to players to help alleviate the massive costs some teams face for projects like stadium construction and renovation. Owners contend such a partnership will help the league grow exponentially and raise player salaries because of the additional revenue that would be created.

Green Bay president Mark Murphy told FOXSports.com that one major goal in CBA negotiation is “getting greater recognition of the costs we invest in the game.”

“We want a system that encourages investment,” Murphy said Tuesday. “In the long run, players are going to benefit. We want to continue to have a system where they’re sharing in the revenue and there’s a salary cap tied to it.”

But before considering such a plea, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith is demanding that teams open their books to show a financial breakdown “down to the penny” of how their businesses are run. The NFL has refused to budge, insisting the union already receives sufficient data.

As Smith said during an interview last May, “Would you buy a car with only half the information about base price? The answer is no.”

Installation of a rookie salary cap — Specifically, one that would funnel money saved on bloated first-round contracts to veterans. Such changes also may trigger radical changes to the current free-agent system, like allowing players to test the market unfettered after three seasons rather than four (the number before this year’s CBA change).

Regular-season expansion to 17 or 18 games while reducing the preseason — NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is championing that plan, but the union may not be so willing because of player injury and salary concerns.

Major changes to the NFL’s drug-testing program — This includes Human Growth Hormone detection through blood samples, a method that former NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw adamantly opposed. The NFL also wants to bar players from using the legal system to supersede policy rulings a la the Starcaps fiasco.

More help for past players — Revamped funding of pensions and financial-aid programs for retired players.

No more King and Judge Roger — Potential NFLPA demands for an arbitrator to hear appeals of suspensions under the NFL’s personal conduct policy rather than Goodell, who also issues the initial sentence.

I haven’t even gotten to less significant but notable topics that will serve as bargaining chips for both sides.

Plus, NFL owners must first agree to their own form of revenue sharing before signing off on a CBA. That could drive a wedge between franchises with newer stadiums and those with dilapidated facilities who need supplemental income like Minnesota. Dallas owner Jerry Jones said last September that the current system was “on its way out,” a statement showing disharmony between clubs. Jones was subsequently fined $100,000 by Goodell for violating a league-imposed gag order on CBA talks.

The NFL, though, has far more momentum that the union right now because of clauses negotiated in the previous CBA. The salary cap and a minimum spending floor were eliminated this offseason, creating a money grab that has allowed teams to save tens of millions on player salaries. The accrued seasons needed to reach unrestricted free agency jumped from four to six, which kept the most appealing players off the market as lesser-paid restricted free agents. Not to suggest collusion among NFL teams – heaven forbid – but the subsequent lack of movement in the RFA market was one of this offseason’s biggest surprises.

Under these circumstances, NFL owners wisely haven’t rushed to the negotiating table.

The only good news for the NFLPA lately was Monday’s unfavorable Supreme Court ruling against the NFL in a manufacturing case involving American Needle. In layman’s terms — and opposite of what the league contends would have happened — there was fear that a favorable judgment would have essentially given the NFL anti-trust status and broad powers to make such moves as the elimination of free agency and player salary restrictions.

With the negotiating landscape now clearer, the league and union can resume bartering about how to best slice a pie made with $9 billion in annual revenue. Neither side – billionaire owners or millionaire players – will draw public sympathy if the NFL temporarily closes shop.

“We want to reach an agreement with the players. We’re going to,” Murphy said. “It’s just a question of when. We all prefer sooner rather than later.”

The answer will determine whether the 2011 offseason faces the same fate as 24: Cancellation.