NFL labor dispute rises to a new level

March 12, 2011

There are more questions than answers regarding the NFL's work stoppage.

These are unchartered waters for the league and former NFL Players Association, which decertified as a players' union on Friday after both sides reached an impasse about the expiring collective bargaining agreement. Court rulings and legal stratagems will now largely determine how the NFL and NFLPA will proceed until a new labor pact is finalized.

In the coming weeks and possibly months, pending unrestricted free agents will learn if and when they can test the market. Franchises will weigh employee furloughs and other cost-cutting measures with revenue streams set to get choked by what was officially announced as an NFL player lockout on Saturday morning. Fans and non-NFL workers like stadium employees and restaurant staff members whose earnings derive from football during the season are also in limbo.

Under these circumstances, here is some of what we do know through a question-and-answer format:

Q: How quickly can the NFL and decertified NFLPA reach a labor agreement?

A: Don't hold your breath. Even three weeks of federal mediation couldn't get these sides to make the concessions needed to avert the first NFL work stoppage since 1987.

Several team owners directly involved in negotiations said Friday that they expect union leaders to ultimately return to the bargaining table. But unless the league has a change of heart and provides the team-by-team financial information that NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith was demanding — again, don't hold your breath — it will probably take a legal ruling that changes the proverbial playing field to spark those new talks.

The NFL has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that the NFLPA's decertification was a sham. Nine current players and one top draft prospect (Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller) filed a class-action lawsuit Friday against the NFL claiming antitrust violations through monopolistic labor practices. How those grievances unfold could apply pressure points that would push one side closer to make a deal.

Q: What is the biggest CBA sticking point?

A: The NFL wants an expanded "expense credit" from its revenue split with the NFL Players Association to help account for rising costs and stadium projects. The league initially asked for a $1 billion rebate in addition to the $1 billion it already was receiving under the previous CBA.

Not only did the NFLPA refuse to budge on that figure, Smith insisted upon financial transparency and unprecedented access to the financial records of each NFL team. The league resisted and made a counterproposal that the NFLPA considered inadequate.

By decertifying as a union, the NFLPA is now expected to pursue discovery litigation that would force franchises to provide more extensive financial information.

Q: What does a "lockout" entail?

A: NFL staff members (coaches, trainers, media relations staffs, etc.) are no longer allowed to have contact with players. Players are prohibited from entering team headquarters. The longer the work stoppage goes, the more this freeze will hurt teams with first-year head coaches or those installing new offensive/defensive systems.

Q: What is the potential financial damage for players and other NFL employees?

A: Most players are paid their annual base salary during the regular season. However, players who were due roster bonuses this spring won't be receiving them until the labor dispute is resolved. There also are 490 players set to become unrestricted free agents who will have to wait before potentially cashing in with new contracts.

The NFLPA advocated throughout 2010 that its members should set aside at least 25 percent of their salary in case of a work stoppage. But it would be naive to think every player was that responsible. Financial instability among its members could become an NFLPA liability if the lockout drags.

"The unfortunate thing working against us in this lockout and CBA talk is that the majority of players in this league live beyond their means," Tampa Bay Buccaneers center and NFLPA representative Jeff Faine recently told the Tampa Tribune. "The majority of people in this country live beyond their means. But not everybody in the NFL makes millions and millions of dollars. It's just the persona we've taken on.

"What about the undrafted free agent who really didn't believe a lockout would occur? I believe there are guys who will suffer."

The same goes for NFL staff members. Many assistant coaches, who are paid throughout the year rather than exclusively in-season, will be receiving a 25 to 50 percent reduction in salary. Some teams will offer those coaches the chance to recoup the lost money if a 16-game regular season is played. There are head coaches, general managers, personnel directors and scouts who will feel a similar pinch, especially if the lockout continues after the NFL draft in late April during what is traditionally a downtime for the league.

Each club is handling CBA fallout differently for non-coaches. The New York Jets already have announced that each of the team's 96 business-side employees will be required to take a one-week furlough in each month without a new CBA. The Miami Dolphins are among the squads planning to conduct business as usual but team management also has warned that furloughs, pay cuts and/or layoffs could be forthcoming depending upon how long the CBA impasse lasts.

Even the top league executives are affected. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and counsel/chief negotiator Jeff Pash are cutting their annual salaries to $1 each during the work stoppage.

Q: Will there be an NFL draft?

A: Yes. The expired CBA mandates that the draft be held April 28-30 in New York City. However, players will not be allowed to report to the teams that drafted them or sign contracts if the lockout continues. This could prove especially problematic for quarterbacks trying to make an immediate impact in their rookie season.

Q: What happens to season-ticket holders?

A: Full refunds on general seating will be offered for all preseason and regular-season games that are canceled (each team has its own policy for club and luxury seating). Fans also could use that refund toward credits for future games. All refunds will be paid within 30 days of a game's cancellation.

If/when single-game tickets are placed on sale later this year, fans will be offered full refunds to canceled games or can exchange the ticket for a future game that the NFL says will be "selected by the club and subject to availability."

Q: What will players do with their time off and how will they stay in season-ready shape?

A: This could become a source of consternation. Players on some teams have spoken about conducting their own group workouts to build chemistry and cohesion, especially on offense. But the reality is that simulating a practice in that environment won't produce the same results as a session held under the auspices of coaches.

There also is an injury risk that must now be viewed in a different light. NFL players are now paying out-of-pocket for their own medical insurance through the government-mandated COBRA program. That might prompt some players not to gamble getting hurt in football workouts. Those who do won't have the luxury of rehabilitation prescribed by team doctors and trainers.

Some players will likely get out of shape without having to participate in offseason programs. The NFL's drug-testing program also is no longer in effect, which means there could be some high times ahead that land reckless players in legal trouble.

Q: Will the NFL consider using replacement players?

A: It's not going to happen. The three weeks in which replacement players were used during the 1987 season were an embarrassment to the NFL because of the drop in quality. The NFL's television partners also won't pay for a subpar product and would rather have the games canceled outright.

Q: How long will it take to get the season started once an agreement is reached and at what point could the entire season be shelved?

A: Even if the lockout lasted until late August, the NFL would need several weeks of start-up time for practices and other preseason preparation. The league estimates it would lose $1 billion if the entire preseason was canceled and $400 million a week for each regular-season game lost.

There is no drop-dead date set for when the regular season must begin. The NFL could play a truncated season like during the player strikes of 1982 and 1987. Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis also could move back one week from Feb. 5 to Feb. 12 if necessary.

NFL executives are still expressing optimism that the 2011 season will happen. In a statement released Saturday morning, Chicago Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips said “a deal will get done and we expect to play football."

There would be a lot more optimism surrounding such a claim if the NFL hadn't come to a screeching halt Friday.