The process of negotiating a new NFL collective bargaining agreement, which began about 10 months ago, might be nearing an end. Or it might not be. And unfortunately, that's about as clear as we can be on this subject right now.
Thursday and Friday were weighty days for the negotiations between the NFL's players and owners. On Thursday, the owners voted to approve the CBA proposal on the table, which has been negotiated between the two sides since last April. The current CBA ends after the 2020 season. That made it seem as if things might be proceeding toward a happy conclusion for both sides.
But on Friday, the players' end of things turned chaotic, and left open the possibility that the two sides would not come to an agreement in time for the start of the 2020 league year next month.
You have questions. We have answers.
All right, so what happened this week?
All 32 of the NFL's team owners gathered in New York City on Thursday afternoon for a two-hour meeting to vote on the terms of the proposed new CBA. To gain approval, they had to get "yes" votes from at least 24 of those owners, which they did, although the vote was not unanimous.
At the conclusion of that meeting, owners left without speaking to the assembled media at the hotel where they'd met and issued a printed statement saying they'd also voted to play the 2020 season under the terms of the current CBA if the players didn't vote to approve the new deal. That statement said they needed to know by next week the rules under which they'd be operating when the new league year begins March 18.
The owners' vote wasn't unanimous? Does that mean anything?
Well, it doesn't affect the process, but it reflects the fact that not all of the owners are comfortable with what they're giving up in this deal. A source close to Thursday's meeting said there even were owners who voted for the proposal who were still expressing doubts about it during the meeting.
But they passed it anyway. So what about the players?
So then on Friday, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) held a nearly three-hour conference call with its 32 team player representatives to discuss the proposal. Just before that call began, the union's executive council -- yes, the body in charge of negotiating the deal with the owners -- voted 6-5 to not recommend the proposal to the rest of union membership, citing concerns over the NFL's desire to expand the regular season from 16 games to 17.
The NFLPA had hoped the ensuing call would result in a vote by the player reps, but it did not. One source said that the executive council's vote "confused" the board of player reps, and that most of the call was spent trying to figure out why they'd voted that way rather than discuss their own vote. Eventually, the player reps decided to table their discussions and attempt to continue negotiations with the owners.
A source said the union still planned to hold a vote of its full membership next week, although they would prefer the player reps to vote to recommend the deal prior to doing so. Officially, 21 of the 32 player reps need to vote yes for it to qualify as a recommendation. An NFLPA statement said: "Our player leadership looks forward to meeting with NFL management again next week before the Board takes a vote shortly thereafter."
Are the owners going to go for that?
One owner told ESPN's Adam Schefter on Friday afternoon that "they won't." And the owners' statement Thursday indicated that if the players didn't approve the current proposal, they would consider the offer rejected and would proceed with the 2020 season under the current rules outlined in the 2011 CBA.
A source later told ESPN that the owners had agreed to meet with the players Tuesday at the combine in Indianapolis, but it's unclear whether that meeting will result in further discussion about terms or whether the owners will tell the players to take the current one or leave it. After the meeting with the league, the NFLPA player reps plan to hold the vote they'd hoped to hold Friday. And after that, the entire body of NFL players will vote on whether to ratify the current proposal.
What's the main sticking point?
Put simply, the players don't want to play 17 games. They feel it's asking too much in a sport that is already ridiculously tough on their health and safety. Sources close to the situation said the reason the NFLPA executive council voted to not recommend the deal was because of concerns some of its members still have over the idea of an expanded regular season and doubts some of them have over the owners' projections for how much more revenue it would generate.
The meeting in Indianapolis between the two sides is likely to address these issues directly, possibly giving members of the board of player reps a chance to hear the owners' side of the issue. It's unlikely that vocally anti-17-game executive council members like Richard Sherman and Russell Okung will be convinced, but it's possible that meeting could help convince enough player reps to vote in favor of the proposal.
Jeff Saturday isn't surprised by the intensity of NFLPA voting
Jeff Saturday reacts to the news of the full NFLPA membership voting on the CBA proposal.
What happens if the players don't approve this?
The expectation is that the owners would then proceed to negotiate new deals with their television network partners -- the current deals are set to expire over the next couple of years -- and hold off on further CBA negotiations until next offseason.
Some members of the NFLPA leadership have tried to convince members that this would lead to an offer next year that isn't as favorable to the players as this one is. Those opposed to the deal have expressed a belief that the owners are bluffing and that they need the new TV deals badly enough that they would offer more concessions if the players went back to them with more demands.
Could the owners be bluffing?
Theoretically, yes, but that's a tough gamble to make when you're negotiating against people who have the astronomical wealth that NFL owners have. The fact that there was dissension in the room when the owners met Thursday indicates that some in their ranks think they're already giving up too much. It's entirely possible, even likely, that if the players don't vote to approve next week, the owners will make good on their threat to pull the deal and float it into next offseason.
Does the fact that the player reps didn't vote Friday mean this is all over? No deal?
No, because the NFLPA's rules don't require the executive council or the board of player reps to recommend the proposal for it to be approved. Article 6.03 of the NFLPA constitution says that a recommendation from the board of player reps (defined as a vote by at least two-thirds of them to recommend) may accompany a CBA proposal presented to players for approval, but all that is required to ratify it is a majority vote of all of the players in the union.
'All of the players in the union' sounds like a lot. How many players are we talking about here?
It is a lot. Any player who paid NFLPA union dues during the 2019-20 league year is eligible to vote. The union estimates that number at about 2,100 players. Of course, it's not expected that all 2,100 will vote, but all 2,100 will have the opportunity to vote.
A source estimated Friday that the vote by the full body of players would take no more than "a couple of days" to complete and would be conducted electronically, either via email or through DocuSign or some similar service.
So they need 1,051 votes to ratify this thing?
No. The NFLPA constitution says a CBA can be ratified by "a majority of the members of the NFLPA voting for ratification or rejection." That means all that is needed is a majority of the players who actually cast votes. If only, say, 500 of them vote, they'd need 251 to vote yes in order for the deal to pass.
What happens if they pass it?
The new collective bargaining agreement would wipe out the final year of the old one and begin with the start of the 2020 league year on March 18. It would run through the 2030 season. Provisions of the new deal, such as higher minimum salaries, an additional $100 million in new player costs, changes to the drug program and more would take effect immediately on March 18. The league also probably would add one playoff team in each conference beginning with the 2020 season.
And the regular season would expand from 16 games to 17?
Not in the 2020 season. The proposed new deal allows the owners the option to expand the season to 17 games at some point, but their window for doing so runs from 2021 to 2023. So the soonest we'd see a 17-game season would be 2021.
Another important note: The deal specifies that 17 games is the maximum number of regular-season games that can be played in any season during the life of the deal. So there's no expansion to an 18-game season until at least 2031.
How will new CBA affect the NFL?
Dan Graziano presents the details behind the NFL owners and players holding two separate CBA meetings, and explains some of the biggest changes on the table.
What's the owners' hurry to get this done now?
Those TV deals, mainly. The 17-game season provision and the expansion of the playoffs allows the owners to go to the TV networks with more inventory. Offer more football, you'd expect to get more money for it. They'd prefer to go into those negotiations knowing for sure they have that added inventory. Otherwise, the uncertainty about the future of the league's schedule, the future of the relationship with the union and the possible effects a presidential election could have on the U.S. and world economies would combine to create less favorable negotiating ground.
Fair enough. So then what incentive do the players have to do it now?
That's the question that many in the NFLPA leadership who oppose this deal are asking. The CBA doesn't expire until March 2021, and the players have done fine under the current deal. Sure, there are things in the new proposal they'd like to get started now, such as higher minimum salaries and favorable changes to the drug and discipline policies. But there's so much opposition to the idea of expanding the regular season to 17 games that players are willing to hold off on the new deal's benefits to make sure they've received enough in return.
So what would the players get under the current proposal, if they approved it?
A lot of stuff that doesn't grab headlines but could impact a large majority of the NFLPA's membership. Minimum salaries, for example, would rise by as much as 20% in the first year of the deal and continue to go up throughout it. More than half of the league's players play on minimum-salary deals.
The deal also would increase the players' share of league revenue, increase offseason pay, lighten offseason and training camp workloads and establish new benefits for former players and practice squad players. There would be no more game suspensions for positive marijuana tests, and the league and union would establish a neutral arbitrator for most discipline cases, instead of having the commissioner preside over all of them.
What's the money breakdown for each side?
The players' share of league revenue would remain at its current level of 47% this year, although the league would add roughly $100 million in "new player costs" for 2020. Starting in 2021, the players would be guaranteed at least 48% of league revenue. That number would jump to 48.5% in any season in which the league plays 17 games, and there's an additional escalator that could push it even higher if the league makes a certain amount of money from its new TV deals.
The NFL generated an estimated $15 billion in revenue last year, so going from 47% to 48.5% means an extra $225 million per year for the players if revenues remain flat, which they are projected not to do.
The NFLPA estimates an increase of roughly $5 billion for players over the course of the 10-year deal. For the owners, the profit would come from those still-to-be-negotiated TV deals and is difficult to estimate, although the new deal would enable the owners to once again take money out of the revenue pool to use for stadium construction and renovations.
If this doesn't pass, are we looking at another work stoppage?
It's unlikely that we'll see a lockout as we did in 2011, when owners opted out of the previous CBA and barred the players from work in an (ultimately successful) effort to drive down the players' share of league revenue. And the odds of the players going on strike seem quite low. So, no, probably not a work stoppage. And even if there is one, it wouldn't be until after the current deal expires next March.
Never say never, but the more likely outcome is that the owners would instead impose work rules outlined in their last, best good faith offer and keep the league going under those rules until a new agreement with the players was reached. And while the players could challenge that in court, there's no guarantee they'd win it.