- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The NFL is back and like every year, fans are eager to see the drama unfold on the field.

In Sunday’s Washington Redskins season opener alone, opposing coaches Jay Gruden and Doug Pederson will match wits, cornerback Josh Norman squares off against Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and new quarterback Case Keenum faces a dominant Philadelphia defense.

But there’s another battle going on in the NFL, an off-the-field struggle between owners and players that is reshaping a league where management has long had the final say on everything from contracts and drug policies to helmets, uniforms and socks.

In that fight, players like the RedskinsTrent Williams and the Raiders’ Antonio Brown are challenging the status quo — demanding not just more money, but more of a say in their own careers, their medical care, how they are utilized and where — or even whether — they play.

From Le’Veon Bell missing an entire season to Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement to Williams‘ protest of Washington’s medical staff, players are pushing back against the top-down control that sets the NFL apart from professional baseball and basketball, where unions have negotiated more parity with owners.

The NFL kicks off its 100th season with the action on the field, as ever, front and center.

But in the background, labor tension simmers — especially with the league’s collective bargaining agreement set to expire in 2021.

Change afoot

Whether it’s a holdout for more money, a demand to be traded or legal battles in court, players are winning some high-profile showdowns with management.

“Players aren’t as afraid of their clubs as they historically have been,” said J.I. Halsell, an agent and former salary cap expert for the Redskins‘ front office. “And particularly now you see that it worked out for Aaron Donald. It worked out for Khalil Mack. … Guys understand their leverage is withholding their services. That’s the only way you can stick it to the club because the system is built to the benefit of the club.”

Not every player has this option at their fingertips.

“The thing I always say about holdouts or acting crazy or being high-drama like an Antonio Brown is you better be special,” said Andrew Brandt, an agent and former front office executive.

“Because if you’re not, the team is going to quickly move on and you’re just sort of there and be stone-walled. Maybe you’re still on the team. But if you are special … you have the ability to do something that 99% of the other players can’t.”

Forty years ago, agent Leigh Steinberg knew many players who worked second jobs in the offseason. For a player making $12,000 a year in the NFL, playing football wasn’t enough to pay the bills.

“They couldn’t survive if they didn’t supplement their income by having a second job,” he said.

It’s different now.

The massive influx of television money — each NFL team made $274 million last season from revenue sharing, which includes media rights — and the introduction of free agency in 1993 changed the math.

“All of a sudden, players could get lifetime security and the stars in the game, in all sports, were making enough money to retire,” Steinberg said, “but also enough money to be able to stand firm in the contract negotiation.”

NFL stars held out before — with the Redskins, John Riggins (1980) and Sean Gilbert (1997) missed entire seasons over contract disputes — but in recent years, players willing to sit have hit the jackpot. As Halsell noted, Mack and Donald — two of the league’s best defensive players — both signed contracts north of $130 million after holding out. In Mack’s case, the Oakland Raiders traded the three-time All-Pro to the Chicago Bears.

Brown wanted out of Pittsburgh and was granted his request with a trade to Oakland. Holdout Ezekiel Elliott signed a $90 million extension with the Dallas Cowboys — despite having two years left on his rookie year. Jadeveon Clowney also saw his trade request granted when he refused to sign his franchise tender before being dealt from the Houston Texans to the Seattle Seahawks.

Donald only got what he wanted after a multi-year battle. In 2017, the star defensive end missed the first two games of the regular season — and reported to the Rams without securing an extension. It was only the following year, when Donald held out again, the two sides finally agreed upon a six-year, $135 million extension.

Not everyone comes out a winner.

Hard to win

NFL stars have shown they can win a labor showdown, but the league’s rank-and-file players live in a different world. Multiple experts told The Washington Times that under the current collective bargaining agreement, NFL management holds all the cards.

Jason Fitzgerald, the founder of the contract website Over The Cap, said owners can usually wait out a contract dispute.

“There are way more examples where teams still kind of squash the player very easily rather than giving in and forcing a trade (or) a monster-sized contract,” Fitzgerald said, later adding, “Owners, players, general managers, everybody knows that the playing career for an NFL player is pretty short. … You don’t have time to give up that kind of money just to sit out on whether it’s principle or just really being upset with something.

“You don’t have that luxury.”

Fitzgerald cited Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon’s holdout this season. Gordon has yet to report and has demanded a trade. But if he sits out the entire year, he’ll forfeit $5.6 million — and his contract will carry over to 2020. Chargers general manager Tom Telesco told reporters Sunday the team was tabling contract talks until after the season, further forcing the running back’s hand.

The Redskins appear to have similar leverage with Williams. The 31-year-old still has two years left under contract and the Redskins aren’t granting Williams‘ request either to be traded or to receive a new contract.

Teams generally avoid giving contracts to a player holding out because they don’t want to risk setting a precedent, Brandt said.

In an interview with NBC4, team president Bruce Allen said he doesn’t see Williams retiring and indicated he expects the tackle to play football this season. Asked if that meant somewhere else via trade, Allen said: “No, it’ll be with us.”

With teams able to fine or suspend players as well as roll over contracts, Steinberg said the rules are “stacked against” a holdout. Unless the player has the public on his side, Steinberg said, teams often don’t feel pressured to make a move.

Leverage, leverage, leverage

LaDanian Tomlinson wants NFL stars to “think like a basketball player.” The Hall of Fame running back told Yahoo Sports his advice to the Giants’ Saquon Barkley was to be prepared to play with more than one team — and to never settle for less money.

In the NBA, many of the sport’s biggest stars (LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant) have changed teams over the past few years — with many dictating where they want to play.

That’s not the case in the NFL.

Top football players rarely hit free agency — with stars, especially quarterbacks, preferring to take their money in advance. Steinberg sees free agency in the NFL as a way to give “B-plus players … A salaries” because of the limited quality.

What would it take for that to change? Patience. Players in the NFL typically don’t become free agents until the fourth or fifth year of their contract, depending on what round they were drafted in. Teams can also use the franchise tag — giving them at least two more years of control.

“Players in the NFL are just scared,” Brandt said. “You offer them enough money, they’re going to take the deal rather than wait when they’d really have some leverage for free agency.”

Leverage can be difficult to create, but players are seemingly warming up on the idea of trying.

Landon Collins, who signed a six-year, $84 million contract with the Redskins this offseason, told The Washington Times he was prepared to holdout if the Giants had elected to use the franchise tag on him this spring. Collins said players create leverage by their past performance on the field.

“What we do, not many people can do,” Collins said.

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