2021: The Year of Football’s Great Labor War

“We prepare for war.” DeMaurice Smith, NFLPA

Off the gridiron, there is no labor peace.

Any illusion of it is caused by the death of the “labor beat” in mainstream journalism — though it will rise again; a phoenix born from the ashes.

While the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) prepares for the coming battle off the diamond, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) is ready for war.

The first salvo came in 2017 when DeMaurice Smith was re-elected NFLPA executive director. Smith went on the offensive mere moments after the unanimous voting totals secured his role.

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Why such a quick attack? NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and team owners expressed deep interest in extending the 2011 10-year collective bargaining agreement and with it, the status quo benefiting owners — they slashed rookie contracts, squeezed veterans pocketbooks and hold all the cards when it comes to player-performance money.

“There’s not gonna be an extension of the CBA,” said Smith, January 2017. “I don’t know what he’s (Roger Goodell) thinking when he says extension. But there’s not gonna be an extension of the CBA. If the owners are interested in talking about issues that are currently covered by the CBA or issues that aren’t currently covered by the CBA and they want to have renegotiation on some of those issues, well have a renegotiation of those issues. But there’s not going to be a 2025 or 2027 addendum to the CBA that says, “We’re good with this.”

“The CBA evolves all the time,” Smith continued. “The best example is drug policy. So, I think it was a year and a half, two years ago the players thought — we thought — that we had an agreement, a stand-alone agreement on commissioner discipline that included neutral arbitration by a mutually selected group of judges. And at the last minute, they made the decision that they didn’t want to do a stand-alone agreement, that they wanted to do it as part of something else, no. So if they want to talk about a renegotiation of important issues — and obviously commissioner discipline will come up — either it gets done or it won’t.”

Two years ago it was a unilateral change to the drug policy, this year it was the revised national anthem policy pushed through in May. It isn’t just the union chief going on the offensive though. Players are ready to take a stand, too.

Eric Winston, current offensive tackle free agent and NFLPA president, has stressed there are several areas of the current CBA that needs to be changed, from health care, the union’s role in league decisions, and revenue splits.

To that end, the players and their union are willing to go out on strike, while being preparing for a lockout by owners in ’21.

“I think that the likelihood of either a strike or a lockout in 2021 is almost a virtual certainty,” Smith said. “I don’t know now, but let’s look at our history…the owners do a deal in 2006 and opt out in 2008. We do a deal in 2011 with no opt-outs because we like the benefits under the current deal and we didn’t want to give the owners a chance to take back the gains that we currently have. So we have a new deal where, if it doesn’t get fixed, you head into a certain small-A armageddon.”

With the 2018 season kicking off last Thursday, there are only two full seasons left before all Hell breaks loose, so let’s talk about it.

The Issues

1. Guaranteed Contracts: That’s right fans. Unlike the NBA and MLB, football players do not receive guaranteed contracts. Kirk Cousins three-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings in March was the first guaranteed deal in league history.

With league-wide revenues reaching $14 billion last seasonthe NFL blows ever other professional sport out of the water, but the players are seeing none of it.

“I will never understand how billionaire team owners have convinced the public that the players, who put their bodies on the line every week for less than 50% of league revenue, are the ‘ungrateful’ ones,” tweeted Los Angeles Chargers left tackle Russel Okung. “Considering football’s level of brute, immanent physicality, high turnover as well as the short life cycle of its participants, it would seem to me that NFL players are in most need of fully guaranteed contracts.”

Adding to that argument is one simple fact: Nothing in the CBA prevents agents from negotiating a fully guaranteed contract for NFL players.

So why doesn’t this NFL do this for everyone? Because not having guaranteed contracts is just the way things have always been done — so why change it.

Data from ProSports Sponsors ETF shows the revenue increases for the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL

Of course, more excuses have cropped up over the years: Players with declining skill taking up roster spots that could go to others; players might put in less effort if they know they’re getting paid no matter what; and players might be less likely to play through pain if they’re not constantly playing for their next contract.

All those reasons seem to ignore — purposely — that guaranteed compensation hasn’t stalled growth and popularity in other sports.

And as Okung aptly noted, players want guaranteed money. Great. Rewrite the CBA. We need an overhaul, not a revision or extension. Why? For starters, the current CBA uses an antiquated revenue accounting method, and salary cap rules take up a significant part of our CBA. One part of ownerships reluctance to give players guaranteed money is the structure of the salary cap system. The ‘cap’ consists of an intricate series of accounting rules that do not fully reflect actual transfer to the pockets of players.

2. Revenue-sharing: The revenue split was a key issue during the 2011 CBA negotiations, and will take centre stage again in ’21.

Currently, the players share of revenue is calculated as: 55 percent of league media, including TV and radio, 45 percent of NFL licensing products and 40 percent of local club revenues. Players share has an upper limit cap of 48.5 percent for 2015–2020, and a minimum of 47 percent throughout the entire CBA.

But, there’s a slight catch.

Owners are entitled to an aggregate “stadium credit” of up to 1.5 percent, which could reduce the minimum percentage to 46 percent 2017–2020, while still guaranteeing that players received at least 47 percent of revenue over the life of the agreement — just not for each individual year.

Compared to the NBA CBA revenue split, 50/50 down the middle, football players are getting robbed of wages that other industry standards dictate that they have rightly earned.

3. Goodell’s sweeping disciplinary power: During the 2011 negotiations the NFLPA gave Commissioner Roger Goodell full disciplinary authority, acting as judge, jury and executioner in Article 46 of the CBA:

“All disputes involving a fine or suspension imposed upon a player for conduct on the playing field (other than as described in Subsection (b) below) or involving action taken against a player by the Commissioner for conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football, will be processed exclusively as follows: the Commissioner will promptly send written notice of his action to the player, with a copy to the NFLPA. Within three (3) business days following such written notification, the player affected thereby, or the NFLPA with the player’s approval, may appeal in writing to the Commissioner”

After a 2016 court ruling upholding Goodell’s decision in deflategateEzekiel Elliot’s suspension, unsuspension, then suspension last year, and today’s national anthem protest, it’s clear an independent arbitrator would be better suited to rule on player-conduct issues.

“This is an issue that has been a thorn in our side — commissioner discipline — that we want to collectively bargain,” Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie said. “To allow them to have the autonomy to make those decisions, it’s obviously not good for us and it’s not good for the NFL. Any way that we can move forward and get that collectively bargained is something that we really want.”

Now, we could look at this from every angle trying to find reasons why and how this happened. But, as with most union contract negotiations, sacrifices are made to secure what workers need, leaving the want for future contract fights.

“I think that’s a bit of a misconception, that we negotiated that into the CBA,” said former Washington Redskins guard and player rep Pete Kendall, who worked for the union during the 2011 talks. “There was a fair bit of discussion trying to negotiate it out. I can see people saying, ‘They should have negotiated out.’ Well, it’s a negotiation.”

Aside from the economic and disciplinary issues, the political-social justice movement started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will also cast a long shadow into ’21. As a militant union, players have found their political voice on and off the field.

“Whether it’s social issues, whether that’s charitable issues in your community, whether it’s anything else that you think that needs fixing, that you are powerful and that, as a whole, we’re even more powerful than that,” said Winston.

As of this writing, Kaepernick remains unsigned and blacklisted, with a collusion grievance heading to trial and a new Nike “Just Do It” ad deal. The NFL and NFLPA are locked into negotiations over the revised national anthem policy, putting it and the NFLPA’s non-injury, class-action against the policy on hold.

And, in case we doubted the union’s commitment to activism on and off the field, remember, back in 2016 the NFLPA created a political action committee — the only one among major U.S. sports unions.

Let the countdown to 2021 begin.

Al Neal
Al Nealhttp://www.peoplesworld.org
Al Neal is an award-winning columnist at Grandstand Central writing on politics, labor relations, and the general rabble-rousing in professional sports. He spent a decade working in the trade union movement with various locals across the country and currently serves as Dir. of Education and Advocacy for the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society.


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