As the NFL kicks off its regular season this week, the specter of labor strife looms like a weakside linebacker.
All the relevant buzzwords and terms have been tossed about. Lockout. Uncapped year. Union decertification. A stretch of more than 16 years of labor peace in the NFL has been threatened, with the deadline to create a new collective bargaining agreement fast approaching.
“At this point, from what the union is telling us, the owners are positioning themselves to lock us out,” said Ethan Albright, the Washington Redskins’ interim union representative. “I’m telling guys, ‘Plan on not playing in 2011. If you’ve got big expenses on the horizon, think about putting them off.’ ”
The labor showdown began last year when the owners opted out early of an agreement reached in 2006, arguing that too much of their revenue was going to the players. That triggered a clause guaranteeing the 2010 season would be played without a cap on team payrolls unless a new agreement could be reached. And there are strong indications that NFL owners would be willing to stage a lockout in 2011 unless a new deal is in place.
The NFL Players Association and team owners have locked horns before, and the threat of a work stoppage has often been present. But not since 1993, when the basis for the current labor agreement was created, have tensions been this high. And not since 1987, when union members went on strike and the NFL used replacement players, have games been affected.
To complicate matters, the death last year of longtime NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw forced a transition of leadership. By most accounts, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell does not have the same kind of working relationship with new union head DeMaurice Smith as he had with Upshaw, and negotiations so far have been informal and insubstantial.
“We have a lot to do and a lot to address,” Goodell acknowledged last week. “The progress to date has been minimal.”
Union officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Expectedly, the disagreement between the league and union is largely, though not exclusively, about money. In 2006, owners reluctantly agreed to increase their payout of revenues to players from 55.5 percent to 60 percent, boosting the league’s annual salary cap on teams to more than $120 million. It was an arrangement that owners quickly found untenable, with many claiming their profit margins fell to single digits. Many owners also said players were insensitive to the expense of the construction of new stadiums.
“From the player standpoint, we felt we were operating under a fair deal,” Albright said. “The owners opted out of that deal, and so far all they’ve said is, ‘Well, we’re paying too much.’ Well, open your books and show us why. Give us some evidence why.”
NFL officials countered that the union already has access to a considerable amount of financial data, with Goodell calling that argument “a distraction from the real issues.”
If the two sides fail to reach an agreement by March, the 2010 season likely would be played without a salary cap for the first time since 1992. The union consistently has said it will not agree to return to a salary cap after an uncapped year, but opinions differ on the effect of the absence of the salary cap.
On one hand, the cap has been widely credited with establishing parity in the league; larger market teams are forbidden from spending considerably more than their counterparts in smaller markets. Cap supporters theorize that without a limit, high-revenue teams like the Redskins, Cowboys and Patriots would have unfettered access to free agents.
In theory, the lack of a cap would mean a boost in player salaries, but those familiar with the labor agreement said it’s not that simple. For one, the absence of a salary cap would also mean the absence of a salary floor, meaning some teams may choose to maintain lower payrolls. Spending on players also could be depressed by a provision of the labor agreement known as the “Final Eight Plan,” which in an uncapped year would prohibit the league’s top eight teams from signing most unrestricted free agents.
“An uncapped year would be a poison pill for both sides,” said Scott Rosner, associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania and a lecturer on sports law.
A lockout would not be unprecedented, though they are rarer than player strikes. The NHL locked out players for the 2004-05 season as it fought to establish a salary cap, and a lockout in 1994 resulted in a shortened season. NBA owners locked out players in 1998, a move that resulted in an abbreviated schedule.
While both leagues dealt with short-term backlash from fans, officials insist the lockouts were necessary to establish major reforms in how players were compensated. But in the case of the NFL, some labor law experts said the changes sought by owners are not as groundbreaking as those that were sought by the NBA and NHL.
“Generally speaking, you don’t see a work stoppage unless someone is looking for a sea change,” Rosner said. “This is not necessarily in the sea-change category.”
If the NFL does attempt to lock out the players, the union has said it will decertify and reform as a more basic “professional organization,” which would allow players to sue on antitrust grounds. The union decertified after the 1989 season and did not return to collective bargaining until 1993, but Rosner said decertification is a long shot.
“That’s a drastic, drastic step,” he said.
Goodell has insisted that the owners have no plans to lock out the players.
“The owners’ intent here is to come to an agreement,” he said. “The idea that the owners would be looking for a lockout, and that would be their objective, is foolish. That is not a practical outcome for them, nor is it beneficial to the league.”