NFL players voted to approve a new collective bargaining agreement with the league's owners, ensuring NFL labor peace through at least 2030 and clearing the way for a 17-game regular season as early as 2021.
The vote to approve was close, at 1019-959. Approval required a majority of the players voting.
"I think that's something we knew, that it would be close," new NFLPA president JC Tretter told ESPN of the close vote. "We just came out of our rep meeting and we had a sense of that based on the discussions. But just as with anything, the majority rules."
The NFL Players Association tweeted news of the approval, saying: "The result comes after a long and democratic process in accordance with our constitution." Tretter lauded the greater share of revenues and post-career benefits but added: "We understand that not all deals are perfect, and we don't take the gains we wanted, but couldn't get, lightly. We now must unite and move forward as a union."
The 10-day voting period, during which any player who paid NFLPA dues during the past calendar year was eligible to vote, concluded at 11:59 p.m. ET on Saturday. Before the voting, the NFLPA estimated that roughly 2,500 players were eligible to vote.
The league's owners voted in February to approve the deal, so the players' approval was all that remained in order to secure it.
Commissioner Roger Goodell also issued a statement, saying: "We are pleased that the players have voted to ratify the proposed new CBA, which will provide substantial benefits to all current and retired players, increase jobs, ensure continued progress on player safety, and give our fans more and better football."
The new CBA will allow the NFL to expand its regular season from 16 to 17 games as early as 2021 and expand the playoff field from 12 teams to 14 as soon as the 2020 season. It also includes higher minimum salaries, improvements to benefits for current and former players, expanded rosters and practice squads, and changes to the league's drug and discipline policies, all of which will go into effect in 2020. 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.
Now that a CBA has been agreed to, teams are not allowed to use both the franchise tag and transition tag this offseason. Teams could have used both if the league were still operating under the old CBA. Teams with more than one high-profile tag candidate -- such as the Cowboys, with Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper -- now face a tough decision.
About an hour after the vote was released, sources told ESPN that the salary cap for the 2020 season would be $198.2 million, an increase of $10 million from last season. Overall player costs, which also counts benefits and the performance-based pay pool, per club are $242.9 million.
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Several high-profile players, including Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and J.J. Watt, had publicly expressed their disapproval of the deal, which encountered several hiccups en route to player approval.
After the owners voted Feb. 20 to approve the terms of the deal they'd been negotiating with players since April 2019, the union's board of player representatives was scheduled to vote via conference call the next day. But shortly before that vote was to take place, the NFLPA executive council surprisingly voted 6-5 to not recommend the deal. The ensuing player rep conference call resulted not in a vote but in a decision to petition the owners for further concessions.
Owners agreed to meet with the players at the scouting combine in Indianapolis on Feb. 25, and during that meeting some minor concessions were made, but the structure of the deal remained the same. Shortly after midnight that night, the board of player reps voted 17-14 with one abstention to send the deal to the full membership for approval.
The next week, attorneys for the players and for the league met in Washington to hammer out the full, 456-page document outlining the new CBA. That work was completed early in the morning of March 5, and the union announced that voting would begin at 9 a.m. ET that day and run through 11:59 p.m. ET on Thursday.
This past week, the player reps gathered in South Florida for their annual meeting and had a contentious discussion about the new deal, the 17-game season and the manner in which the deal was negotiated. At that meeting, the players agreed to extend the voting window by two days, but a resolution that would have allowed players who'd already voted to change their votes was rejected. Panthers offensive tackle Russell Okung, a former executive council member and a vocal opponent of the deal and of NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, filed an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Smith illegally negotiated the deal and impeded debate on the issue. That complaint is still pending.
Speaking to ESPN, Tretter was asked if he was worried about players such as Okung rebelling now.
"I don't think so," he said. "I think where we ended our meetings and the tone we ended the meetings on, we're all going to be on the same page."
In the meantime, though, the NFL has a deal in place between the players and owners that runs through 2030. The owners can get to work on negotiating new deals with their TV network partners. And while there remains a chance the start of the 2020 league year could be postponed because of the coronavirus, it remains scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, with the "legal tampering" window set to open at noon on Monday.