It’s difficult to surprise a group of hardened NFL Players Association officials, but that’s exactly what happened when the league recently approached the union about starting negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.
It’s rare for the owners to try to initiate talks with the players about a new CBA (and not the other way around). One player briefed on the negotiations called the owners’ offer “uncharted territory.”
That’s because the owners have traditionally operated with an air of arrogance with the players during negotiations, likely due to of the power and wealth they possess.
The friendliness of the talks so far have surprised some. San Francisco defensive back Richard Sherman, the team rep for the 49ers, told B/R this week that “the discussions have been more productive and amicable” than he thought they would be.
This is good news. Really good news. In an ideal world, both sides will continue their good-faith talks and agree upon a new deal peacefully and without a work stoppage. That would be a refreshing change from the last negotiation in 2011, which was ugly from start to finish.
However, there’s also potentially bad news.
Some players believe negotiations could still easily implode and a significant portion of the 2021 season could be lost to a work stoppage. The issues this time are complex.
For starters, several sources close to the talks believe a large contingent of players will want the union to push for guaranteed contracts, or something close to them. (Both the NBA and MLB have guaranteed deals in far less violent sports.) That will be a thorny discussion, as NFL owners will fight against guaranteed deals until their last country club membership runs out.
The specter of an 18-game regular season, revenue sharing, the power of the commissioner (players feel he has too much) and player-safety issues also loom. And the two sides must address newer issues such as a potentially revamped marijuana-testing policy and managing the revenue generated from the new world of legalized gambling.
It’s all massively dicey stuff. It’s no wonder both sides are starting to talk early, or why some are preparing for the worst.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith recently notified agents that players should prepare for a work stoppage when the current CBA expires after the 2020 season by saving enough money to last for months.
Christy Radecic/Associated Press
“We are advising players to plan for a work stoppage of at least a year in length,” Smith wrote. “We are also encouraging all players to save 50 percent of their salary and bonuses and to save the entirety of their performance-based pay amounts they should earn over the next two regular seasons.”
Players tell me they don’t believe Smith’s letter is a negotiating ploy. While this is debatable, it should be noted that before the players and owners signed a new CBA in 2011, a lockout persisted for more than 130 days.
So while the early forays into talks are an optimistic sign, the league is also playing a bit of hardball and already starting to negotiate through the media as well.
For example, take a recent Washington Post story about the possibility of an 18-game season, a piece whose timing conveniently serves the league’s interests. First, it kept the notion of an expanded schedule alive in the public domain. Second, it set off alarm bells for players, who want no part of an 18-game season unless owners make a massive concession (and by massive, I mean the size of an exoplanet). Players believe an 18-game season would add a lot more violence to a season that’s already violent enough.
By floating something it knows the players will never agree to, the NFL will look reasonable when it withdraws the unreasonable demand, as former Packers executive Andrew Brandt noted.
How do we know this? The NFL used the same tactic during the 2011 CBA negotiations.
However, there may be a way for the players and owners to avoid the potential calamity of a lost season.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press
Yes, it would mean owners would have to give up some of their already substantial power and wealth. But if the owners guaranteed all or most of their players’ contracts, it would go a long way toward not only avoiding a labor dispute, but also helping to build a trust between the players and owners that could last a generation.
This is what happened in the NBA and MLB. It isn’t solely a question of the strength of those unions; it’s the mentality of the team owners in those sports. NBA owners see players as true partners.
NFL owners, in many ways, still see players as cattle.
If they change that mentality, there may never be a labor dispute again.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.