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There’ll Be No New CBA Without an 18-Game Season

The players will be asking for a lot of concessions in a new collective bargaining agreement. The one concession they have to offer: an expanded season. Expect that to be the key point in negotiations between the league and the union. Plus, thoughts on Melvin Gordon’s situation and the Tyreek Hill dilemma.

Before getting to the column, a note about how I spend my birthday last Friday: sitting for the NFLPA agent exam to gain certification to represent NFL players. As part of my partnership with Gary Vaynerchuk and Vayner Sports, I agreed to become certified. And the room of wannabe agents was full of “my people,” many commenting that they studied for the exam in part by reading this space and listening to my podcasts (all the more pressure for me to pass with flying colors). There were about 220 aspiring agents attempting to join the current registered group of roughly 800. My sense is that the pass rate will be low, perhaps under 50%, as the NFLPA would like to cull the herd. Regardless, there will be more agents (including me).

On to the column …

CBA? Only if 18 games

My wish that the NFL and NFLPA move on CBA negotiations appears to have been answered. Reports indicate that talks are happening, even with some momentum. Parallel reports have the NFL raising the issue of a potential 18-game season, with predictable pushback from the union. While the 18-game season will draw much debate, I don’t know see how a CBA is negotiated without it.

Negotiations, by necessity, require concessions by both sides, and each party’s strategy of having “gives” in their arsenal to achieve “gets.” The NFLPA ’s wish list for “gets” would include, but is not be limited to:

(1) Improved revenue split from approximately 47% of league revenues (after having roughly 50% in the prior CBA);|
(2) Improved minimum team spending thresholds and timing windows, above the current 89% threshold, which is only inspected every four years;
(3) Shortened rookie contracts: from five years to four for first-round players; four years to three for other picks, to allow earlier free agency gains;
(4) The end of or limitations on the franchise tag;
(5) The end of or limitations on the commissioner’s power over personal conduct;
(6) The end of or limitations on discipline for marijuana use;
(7) The meaningful sharing of new revenues associated with legalized gambling.

This wish list is great, but raises the question: What, exactly, is the NFLPA going to offer the NFL to achieve any of these desired outcomes? I can’t think of a single thing, except … 18 games. With the NFLPA giving up many concessions in 2011, this is the only paved path to a new CBA.

What if, say, the NFLPA agrees to an 18-game season in return for the players’ revenue share going up two percentage points, from 47% to 49%? These two points would not only, over the life of the deal, move billions of dollars from the owners’ side to the players’ side, but also give the players 49% (not 47%) of the incremental revenue from two extra games per season. There is no other “give” the NFLPA has that is nearly as valuable.

I always say two things about a multi-issue negotiation such as this: (1) Everything’s negotiable, and (2) Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. This CBA negotiation will definitely be complicated, as the NFL is still looking for even more “gets”—such as further stadium credits—even after extracting what it did in 2011. But for the NFLPA to get any meaningful wins from the league in this CBA negotiation, the 18-game season is their paramount “give.”

Sure, there’s NFLPA pushback (we don’t expect them to say “Sure!”). And yes, adding two meaningful games flies in the face of the league’s stated priority of making the game safer. However, the business of sports always wins.

Melvin Gordon’s uphill climb

As an advocate for players being properly valued for their services, I feel for Melvin Gordon (and all NFL running backs) in his pursuit of an upgraded contract and his consequent holdout threat. But he is fighting a losing battle.

NFL running backs are stuck in a system that, because of the position’s short shelf life, works against them. Prime earning years for running backs are before and during their undervalued rookie contracts. All of those unpaid carries that Gordon had at Wisconsin, or that Ezekiel Elliott had at Ohio State, worked well in getting those players drafted high, but will lead to diminishing returns on future income. For what other position do we discuss “tread on the tire”? Query this: Does production early in a running back’s career actually help his drive for a new contract or hurt it?

Gordon and his agent are trying to get that one big contract of his career—and running backs only get one, if that—now, as opposed to waiting for an uncertain marketplace after this season. The past year Le’Veon Bell was able to negotiate with all NFL teams and only found one, the Jets, bidding for his services, and the league’s highest-paid running back, Todd Gurley, was seamlessly replaced by journeyman C.J. Anderson down the stretch for the Rams. Some NFL teams are not only reluctant to reward a productive running back with a third contract, but even hesitant to hand out a second one!

Although it would never happen, the NFL draft eligibility rule that requires players to be three years removed from high school should really be amended to exclude running back. Those players need their own union; their plight is that much different from other positions.

Melvin Gordon may have very good reasons to have his contract upgraded. He just plays the wrong position to have any leverage to do so.

Tyreek Hill and the limited shelf life of outrage

The NFL’s decision not to discipline Tyreek Hill is a case study for the changing nature of the league’s personal conduct policy and how the luxury of time can tame the social media mob.

There was no video of Hill (as there was with Ray Rice, who was suspended indefinitely, and Hill’s former teammate Kareem Hunt, who was given an eight-game suspension), but there were reports of disturbing audio. Once those reports surfaced, the Twitter crowd mobilized, demanding Hill’s release and speculating that, like Rice, he would never play football again. Both the NFL and the Chiefs resisted the urge to act, and the outrage, even from Twitter, was unsustainable.

Now, the reaction to HIll’s non-discipline is muted compared to the pitchforks that came out when the audio comments were reported. It is a lesson for all businesses, especially the NFL: Outrage is inevitable, but so is that outrage being replaced by outrage over something else. (This, of course, is something the Tweeter-In-Chief knows very well).

Ultimately, the problem with commissioner discipline regarding domestic violence is not that it is too harsh (post-video Rice, Hunt, Ezekiel Elliott); nor is it that it is too soft (pre-video Rice, Hill). Rather, it is too arbitrary.

Transparency breeds trust; if the NFL had clear and public criteria for discipline—or lack thereof—it would be much better served in the court of public opinion.

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