FOX Sports Exclusive
NFL owners, players digging in as work stoppage looms
Decertification. Collusion. Lockout.
These aren’t the words NFL fans want to hear, especially during the regular season.
Blame the non-football vernacular on the league and its players union for being unable to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. And while not yet overshadowing the on-field product, the public propagation of such terms will only increase as both sides inch closer to a March work stoppage.
The latest developments occurred Tuesday at the NFL’s fall owners meetings in Chicago. Team executives were briefed about employee contingency plans that include layoffs and pay cuts for league employees if a new labor pact isn’t finalized before the current CBA expires at the end of February. The Wall Street Journal reported that the NFL could lose as much as $1 billion if a work stoppage extended into late next summer.
The NFLPA is planning for a rough future as well. The Washington Post reported that the union may file collusion charges against the NFL next month. The NFLPA would cite a significant dip in free agent signings last offseason, especially among restricted free agents, and reduced 2010 payrolls among its claims that teams were illegally conspiring to reduce player costs.
The NFLPA also continues to conduct voting among its players seeking permission for the option to decertify as a union when the labor agreement expires. Based on past precedent that led to major labor reform in the early 1990s, the NFLPA believes this strategy would allow players to challenge the NFL’s business practices through anti-trust lawsuits.
The union has previously enjoyed legal success against the NFL. Court rulings, though, also take time and may not necessarily go in the NFLPA’s favor.
“There are litigation strategies,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged during a Tuesday news conference. “We’re focused on trying to get a collective bargaining agreement. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 100 times: This will be resolved at the collective bargaining table.”
CBA talks don’t strike a chord with the average fan -- yet. But the possibility of labor strife will start to hit home as teams get eliminated from playoff contention. The excitement generated by talk of potential free agent acquisitions and player re-signings will be replaced by the tedium of negotiating rhetoric.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft told media on Tuesday that the possibility of a new labor pact by December was “realistic.” Based on how slowly talks between the two sides have unfolded, that sounds more like a best-case scenario. The NFL and NFLPA still have to reach agreement on such major issues as expansion to an 18-game schedule, a revamped rookie wage scale, changes in the drug-testing policy and the reinstatement of a salary-cap system.
The 18-game schedule seems a certainty. It’s the only viable way to greatly increase revenues that would be split between the NFL and its players. The reduction of massive signing bonuses and financial guarantees for early draft picks also is a given. So is the reduction of accrued seasons needed to become an unrestricted free agent. The number jumped from four to six in 2010, which kept many of the league’s best young players off the market.
Finalizing details on these changes will take time. NFL franchises rubber-stamped approval of the previous CBA in 2006 without fully understanding the ramifications of what they were signing. This led to team owners unanimously voting to opt out of the agreement two years later. They claimed the deal was too lopsided financially in favor of the players.
Don’t expect the owners to make the same mistake twice.
So which side will blink first? So far, the players have shown as much public unity as the owners. Players from all 10 teams that have voted thus far have given the union permission to decertify. Balloting will continue through mid-November.
But despite the best educational efforts of the NFLPA, it’s fair to wonder how many of its constituents truly grasp the potential impact of a work stoppage and are prepared to weather those financial consequences. That became evident during a recent FOXSports.com visit to Houston Texans team headquarters.
“We talk to the guys about saving as much money as you can from this year’s salary,” Texans NFLPA player representative DeMeco Ryans said. “I think guys are doing it because they actually see that it’s for real and a lockout actually is going to happen. You have to take measures into your own hands and plan ahead so you’ll be ready.”
In a nearby locker room stall, offensive lineman and 13-year NFL veteran Ephraim Salaam painted a different picture.
“They don’t get the magnitude of the situation yet,” he said. “The league is filled with a lot of young players ... Hopefully, everything can be resolved and we can keep working.”
Salaam then shook his head. He wonders how a league enjoying unprecedented popularity and revenue – the NFL generated $9 billion in 2009 – could be in this situation.
“Of course it’s frustrating because we have such a great league right now,” he said. “To have a work stoppage or the problems we’re having is crazy.”
That’s a simple sentiment every fan can understand.