What a time it is, truly unprecedented in the sports world, let alone the world at large. Although the NFL-NFLPA CBA was approved, and that will be the focus here, and NFL free agency, Tom Brady in Tampa Bay and other business is underway, there is truly only one story in March of 2020 and the foreseeable future. The COVID-19 coronavirus has brought the sports world, and society at large, to its knees.
I was flying this week, armed with gloves and mask, and it is an eerie feeling traveling now, with everyone a potential threat to transmit the virus. I spent the weekend in tiny Page, Arizona, running an Ultra race in the mountains. There were no known cases of the virus in the county yet the Walmart was sold out of hand sanitizer and toilet paper; no place, however small, is immune to the virus.
The only possible sports comparison with what is happening now is what happened in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks. With that crisis, however, the resumption of sports—and large gatherings—was not only certain but highly anticipated. Now it is hard to know when (or if) normalcy will return to sports. This crisis has presented us with a line in the sand on how we gather for sports contests; the way things were done pre-virus and the way things are done post-virus. Things will never be the same.
The NFL’s Relative Good Fortune
As I traveled, the NBA suspended operations and it felt inevitable that all other sports leagues would follow, as they did. No sports league or governing body wanted to be the last one standing to continue operations amid this crisis. Unless, of course, we are dealing with the NFL, the only major sports league not currently staging public gatherings, whether games or events. While a decision has been made regarding the draft (a scaled-down affair), and will have to be made regarding subsequent minicamps (likely pushed back), those decisions have the luxury of time, especially compared to the exigent circumstances of NBA/NHL/NCAA/MLS/MLB/NLL/XFL/NASCAR and more. Although it is hardly a “win,” the NFL is in a better position than any major sports league, due to where we are in the calendar.
Now the NFL is in the midst of its busiest week of the year in the business of football, something that I thought would be pushed back. I know there are no public gatherings and minimal actual person-to-person “contact” with league business, but I still thought it should not go forward. The sports world has shut down; society is in crisis, both financially and health-wise, and there was no urgency. More importantly, I think the sporting public will need NFL Free Agency a lot more in a couple weeks or a month than it does now. Time was the league’s friend here.
But alas, on the heels of the approved CBA, the league did not want to postpone. As I always say, the business of football always wins.
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A CBAby, With Labor Pains
Owners and Players have now ratified a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), one with an historic length of 11 years. The Players approved it by the slightest of margins (1019 votes to 959 votes); a dozen or so votes could have produced the opposite result. It might have only passed, as I was told, because of earnest lobbying by team player representatives voting for the deal up until the deadline for the vote.
I continue to believe this is not an equitable deal for the Players, irrespective of the national crisis. And I have taken some slings and arrows for having that view (more on that below).
But, clearly, I was not alone in that view, as almost 1000 NFL players gave it a thumbs down.
In simplest terms, I believe the Players, despite incremental gains in other areas, are not getting enough in return for giving up the most important concession of the entire negotiation, the 17th game.
Headlines from the Deal
Union leadership stated that the issue of the 17-game season was a “non-negotiable” for the Owners. What I have continued to wonder, as have several players, is this: how did 17 games go from being a “non-negotiable” for the Players to a “non-negotiable” for the Owners?
Wasn’t the addition of regular season games a non-starter for the Players for the past 10 years? It is hard to know what changed, other than the Owners offering incremental gains and a modest increase in the Players’ revenue share. Despite multiple statements from union leadership that Players were informed throughout the process, I was told by several agents that the shift in thinking about 17 games was news to many players, at all skill levels.
And, of course, we can lose the narrative about this vote being about “stars vs. the rank and file.” Unless of course, you believe the 959 players that voted against the deal are “stars.”
When we will look back on this CBA, what do we think its defining headline is?
For the Owners, of course, it is the 17th game (and an additional playoff game that eliminates the bye week for another team in the playoffs).
For the Players, perhaps it is the incremental gains in Benefits for current and former players, or the practical elimination of marijuana testing, or further gains in work rules regarding health and safety rules. However, even as callous as NFL owners are painted to be, I find it hard to believe that they would not have improved these areas in any CBA, no matter the length or number of games. Perhaps the Players defining headline was the $100,000 immediate increase in minimum salaries and increases beyond that. The Owners, as they do in individual player contract negotiations, presented the Players with “early money” to gain long-term cost certainty.
The Fine Print
I also found that some of the provisions that I thought were part of the CBA when I first wrote about it. Upon further inspection, there are some areas that are actually different than were advertised. Here are three of those issues:
What we thought: Assuming Owners implement a 17-game schedule next year (which of course they will), Players are guaranteed 48.5% of revenues through the rest of the CBA.
What is true: Players will receive 48% of Revenues next year and every year beyond that. The percentage will rise to 48.5% if—and only if—Owners negotiate a 60% increase in media deals.
What we thought: Players receive their share of 100% of all gambling revenues.
What is true: The above is true in-season only; the percentage drops to 50% or below in the offseason.
What we thought: Commissioner Goodell’s reign over Player Conduct will end with neutral arbitration for player discipline.
What is true: Neutral arbitration is for initial discipline only; Commissioner Goodell will retain his appeal power (no long “jury”, but still “judge and executioner.”)
When I hear talk about how the Players should have approved the CBA, it was rarely about “how good” the deal is. Instead, it was about (1) with the deepening virus crisis, taking the deal before things got worse; (2) if they didn’t take the deal, the Owners would rub their noses in it and make it worse; (3) the Owners would never renegotiate these terms, despite their strong desire—and the media networks’ strong desire—for labor peace and 17 games, and (4) the Players could never stay together during a potential work stoppage. And when I would ask, “Well, what about the deal?” I would hear about the increases in minimum salaries and “other incremental gains.”
What is disappointing is that there seems to be a real resignation about NFL players and their lack of leverage with Owners. Sometimes I wonder if people think NFL players should be lucky for whatever they can get from Owners. It is a strange perception, one I do not see regarding other leagues and their athletes.
Live and Learn
With my criticism of the deal from the Players perspective, I also experienced an ugly side of the business of football. I was told—by more than one person—that NFLPA leadership was “upset with me” and watching the retweets and likes from NFL players on my Twitter accounts. And a couple media colleagues, without asking me, were suggesting that the source of my critique of the CBA was that I was “publicly campaigning” for the job of Executive Director of the NFLPA.
Please. I am not interested in nor “publicly campaigning” for the job of NFLPA Executive Director. Yes, players and agents have asked me to consider the position at various times in recent years, but I have repeatedly declined. I have several jobs that I enjoy and am happy with my life.
Having said that, I did think—perhaps naively—that the NFLPA could have used my experience and insights to consult and assist their negotiating team. After this experience, however, I now know that was naive on my part.
Over and Done … Or Not
Media and fans are on to free agency, Tom Brady in Tampa and the excitement of a new year amid the deepening virus crisis, suggesting we can all move on from the CBA for another decade.
Or can we? As we know, Players were very conflicted about this deal. The NFLPA Executive Committee was against it; the Player reps were for it by a slight margin (17-14-1), and the overall population of players approved it by a handful of votes. Despite calls of unity by new NFLPA president JC Tretter (I think he is a good choice), almost half of all NFL players now have feelings of being dragged into a deal that they don’t want. As I can attest personally, this was not a pretty process.
I am not suggesting a mass holdout or protest; I do think, however, that we have not heard the end of player discontent about this CBA. Players are still wondering why there was such urgency a year before expiration of the CBA and why this deal went out for vote when the Executive Committee, the senior leadership entity for the union, voted against it.
Maybe some star players hold out (despite the increased penalties for holdouts in this CBA); maybe they’re not as willing to do league-oriented events or commercials. While the whirr of activity now drowns out any naysayers about the CBA, the hard feelings will eventually return about this 11-year deal that narrowly passed in the midst of a national emergency.
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