By a narrow margin, NFL owners have succeeded in paying a little to gain a lot — a decade of labor peace, a 17th game starting as soon as 2021 and more playoff games in 2020 (which they could have imposed on their own).
By providing a few more jobs (rosters and practice squads grow) and a little more pay to the least-compensated players — the bottom 20 or so on a given NFL roster — the owners induced 51.5 percent of the union to approve a new collective bargaining agreement though 2030.
Now, of course, all the parties have to have is a season. That outcome was not a subject of negotiation. But the pandemic had an influence.
The deal was announced Sunday morning after the Saturday night closure of a 10-day voting window. In that time, some of the richest veterans, including Seahawks QB Russell Wilson and former Seahawks CB Richard Sherman, argued primarily that the deal wasn’t good enough to abuse their bodies a 17th time (and, inevitably, an 18th time down the road).
The counter-argument by many players likely to be in the league for three years or less was simple: The minimum wage in the NFL is more money than most will ever make, and they would not jeopardize that by threatening a strike.
The intensely contested vote, 1019 to 959, was close and probably tipped in the favor of owners by the real-world events that happened in the NFL’s off-season.
The nationwide shutdown of sports and the closures of colleges and schools, as well as much of America’s normal life, didn’t hit the NFL calendar as hard. But it likely influenced some no voters to change their minds.
The stock market plunge and some positive tests among pro athletes for the novel coronavirus — including a member of the XFL Seattle Dragons, whose season has been ended — brought home, as Pro Football Talk reported, a sense of vulnerability to some. But obviously not everyone. More than 500 of the union’s estimated 2,500 members who paid dues last season couldn’t be bothered to vote.
Even though the current deal, reached in 2011 after a four-week lockout of players, still had the 2020 season to go, owners spent nearly 10 months of quiet negotiations with the union’s executive council to get a new CBA in place ahead of rights-fees negotiations with TV and streaming networks.
They thought they had an acceptable agreement done Feb. 20, when they leaked details of a tentative agreement through the league’s house organ, NFL.com, and its subsidiary, ESPN.com.
But numerous players were unhappy with the 17th game, especially Sherman, a union vice-president.
“It’s always odd, when you hear (from owners) player safety is their biggest concern, and they’re really standing up for player safety,” he said in February. “But it seems like player safety has a price tag. Player safety up to the point of, ‘Hey, 17 games makes us this much money, so we really don’t care how safe they are if you’re going to pay us this much money to play another game.’
“That’s the part that’s really concerning for us as a union.”
Not quite concerning enough, apparently, even if part of the deal includes dropping the number of fake games from four to three, along with fewer full-contact practice days in camp (28 to 16).
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith released a statement saying, well, the union can’t have everything.
”The current proposal contains increases across almost every category of wages, hours, working conditions and benefits for former and current players,” he wrote. ”Like any contested negotiation . . . the proposal also reflects trades with the counter-party which have to be carefully weighed and assessed across the entirety of the deal.
“Please be confident that I hear, loudly and clearly, those of you who have passionately expressed their perspective that these gains are not enough when weighed against, for example, adding another game. That position reflects how some members have chosen to weigh what aspect of the deal is important to them.”
Also included are improvements to pension benefits for current and former players, and changes to the league’s drug and discipline policies, all of which go into effect immediately. The deal would increase the players’ share of league revenue from 47% to 48% in 2021 and to at least 48.5% in any season in which 17 regular-season games are played.
But the process and result was sufficiently sour that another former Seahawk, LT Russell Okung, now of the Carolina Panthers and a former executive council member, filed an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board against the NFLPA and Smith. Okung alleges Smith illegally negotiated the deal and impeded debate on the issue. That complaint is still pending.
For now, the deal is done. The official new business year starts at 1 p.m. Wednesday as scheduled, with commencement of free agency, although there has been talk of postponing the start because potential restrictions on domestic travel may impede players from getting physical exams.
Free agent deals are already reaching tenative agreements, with QB Ryan Tannehill agreeing Sunday to stay with the Tennessee Titans for a four-year extension potentially worth $118 million.
For the moment, it’s business as usual for the biggest American sport, owners getting a 10-year edge on players, yet still able to throw large coin toward a one-hit wonder.
We’ll see if it’s disease-resistant too.