Lessons from the 2011 NFL Lockout

With storm clouds on the horizon, and another lockout looming, we look back on the causes and ramifications of the 2011 NFL lockout.

A warm embrace between New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and then-Colts center Jeff Saturday signaled the end of the longest player lockout in NFL history.

After 132 days, football was back.

The NFL and NFL Players Association’s (NFLPA) July 25, 2011 joint conference announced the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA), ushering in a decade of labor peace.

Surrounded by player reps and team owners, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell each took turns at the mic.

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“It’s been a long time coming. Football is back and that’s the great news for everybody. I want to thank De and all of the players for their leadership and for securing the long-term future of the game. Having a 10-year agreement is extraordinarily great for our game but most importantly our fans,” said Goodell.

“I want to say thanks to everybody who’s been involved with this. It’s been a very long process. Like I said, there’s a next step for us to reconstitute as a union. There are issues we need to address very quickly — issues of health, safety, benefits, other collectively-bargained issues that we have addressed back in March but really haven’t addressed thus far,” Smith said in closing.

It was a dramatic shift in tone for both sides following a long and bitter fight in the public eye. And as we head towards what could be yet another prolonged and messy labor battle in 2021, it’s important to look back and recognize what went wrong the last time around, and how those mistakes might be repeated.

So, where did it all begin?

Flashback to ‘87

It was the fight for free agency rights that led players back out onto the picket lines in ’87; as they’d done five years earlier.

After a 57-day strike in ’82 aimed at altering the NFL’s limited free agency system and gaining 55 percent in revenue shares, players agreed to a CBA December 5, 1982. The agreement improved players severance pay, increased minimum salaries, and added medical rights. But did nothing for free agency.

The only leverage players had against the league this year was withholding their services…again.

What choice did they have?

Team owners were prepared and took the offensive by bringing in in scab players, who were joined by 15 percent of union players. Crossing the picket line were Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Lawrence Taylor, Steve Largent, and Tony Dorsett.

After 24 days, player reps voted to end the strike and returned to the gridiron defeated.

’87 Court Battle

With such a loss hanging over their heads, the NFLPA took the NFL to court October 15, 1987 challenging the league’s intent to keep the first refusal compensation system and other players earlier CBA restrictions.

While Judge David Doty sided with players in January ’88, ruling that the clubs’ continuance of the first refusal and compensation restrictions on free agents was not protected by the labor exemption to the antitrust laws, Doty ruled against the NFLPA six-months later. Doty found the injunction sought by the NFLPA, aimed at granting free agency to 300 players, would destroy the competitive balance between teams.

Doty stressed the importance of both sides going back to the bargaining table while preparing for an anti-trust lawsuit, which he believed the payers would win based on merit.

With that in mind, the NFL created and unilaterally pushed through the “Plan B” limited free agency system.

The “Plan B” Era

(Plan B) allows each team to retain limited rights to 37 players each season. A protected player is unable to sign with other teams without giving his old team the first chance to sign him or forcing his new club to compensate his old club if he goes elsewhere.

Following more litigation, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of team owners November ‘89, finding they were exempt from federal anti-trust laws “so long as players were adequately represented by a union.”

In a risky and radical move, the NFLPA decertified as a union, and players took the league to court in separate anti-trust lawsuits to win free agency. New York Jets running back Freeman McNeil and seven other players who were restricted under “Plan B” filed an antitrust lawsuit against the league in 1990, and in ‘92 a Minneapolis jury found in favor for the players. Awarding $1.63 million in damages for four of the eight plaintiffs and struck down “Plan B.”

A Union Win

The NFLPA recertified as a union in the spring of ’93 and signed a seven-year CBA with the NFL providing unlimited free agency for all players after four years in the league, saw the union agree to a salary cap based on revenue percentage—increasing player wages by 38 percent in the ’93 season.

The 93’ agreement was extended five times. Players saw their share of league revenue go to 59.5 percent from 2006 to 2009 and 60 percent in 2010.

The 2006 CBA extension was a huge victory for the union and its executive director Gene Upshaw, the former Oakland Raider and 23-year union chief. During his tenure, the union grew stronger after each fight. With salaries rising from $120,000 to almost $1.4 million in 2005—an increase of over 1,000 percent.


Two years later, the NFL notified the union it was opting out of the ’06 CBA.

Upshaw and the union had been expecting the move and said: “Roger [Goodell] e-mailed me this morning [and] told me they had a unanimous agreement to terminate the deal, my response back to him? ‘What a surprise.’”

“All this means is that we will have football now until 2010 and not until 2012,” Upshaw added during a conference call. “We will move ahead. This just starts the clock ticking. If we can’t reach agreement by 2010, then we go to no man’s land, which is 2011.”

Four months after the NFL’s notice of termination, Upshaw, 63, died suddenly August 20, 2008 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three days earlier.

DeMaurice Smith was unanimously voted in March 19, 2009.

Smith had only one message to union members as they barreled towards contract negotiations: “Guys, let’s get to work.”

At the bargaining table

Negotiations for a new CBA started in early 2010. With relations between the NFL and players union souring over the last two years, mediated negotiations were the only option.

A small attempt aimed at preventing all out war.

The NFL and team owners came to the table demanding cuts to salaries and benefits under the current cap system. Threatening a lockout if no agreement was reached by March 1, 2011.

The NFLPA rejected the league’s cut-back proposals, demanding to see all financial records to determine why there was a need for clubs to slash player benefits and pay.

Federal mediator George Cohen, Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) till 2013, could only do so much to encourage both sides to make good-faith efforts at reaching a compromise.

Team owners and the league had a different idea in mind. They anticipated a lockout, in fact, they planned on it.

As a safety measure, the NFL extended T.V. contacts to provide a gained income of around $4 billion for the league if games were not played due to labor disputes—Judge Doty ruled the NFL violated the CBA for the broadcast deal. Receiving payment from broadcasting partners was similar to “purchasing insurance” against a likely lockout.

The Breakdown

Negotiations came to an impasse quickly. And both sides agreed to a one-week CBA extension in the hopes of reaching a new agreement.

Players walked out of negotiations Friday afternoon, March 11, 2011, after talks broke down. The NFL and owners locked-out players shortly after midnight Saturday, soon after the CBA expired.

Goodell pointed his finger directly at the NFLPA and claimed the union had walked away from the mediated discussions.

“They’ve chosen to pursue another strategy, and that is their choice,” Goodell said.

“I’m sad for our fans,” Smith told reporters that evening. “I’m sad for our players . . . [but] I’m proud of the [players] who have devoted themselves to be leaders.”

Taking a page from their playbook, players again decertified the NFLPA and headed to the courthouse.

In the Courtroom

New England Patriots’ Tom Brady, Indianapolis Colts’ Peyton Manning and New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees along with seven other players filed an antitrust suit against the NFL, accusing the league of conspiracy and anticompetitive practices going back years.

The players filed a request for an injunction that would end the league’s lockout.

Using provisions found in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, a federal antitrust statute limiting monopolies and restrictions on commerce passed in 1890, the players said they were entitled to triple the number of damages incurred by the lockout.

Players accused the 32 NFL teams of conspiring to deny their ability to market their services “through a patently unlawful group boycott and price-fixing arrangement or, in the alternative, a unilaterally imposed set of anti-competitive restrictions on player movement, free agency and competitive market freedom.”

Court Orders

U.S. District Judge Susan Richardson Nelson granted the injunction April 25, 2011 and ordered the league to resume operations. The NFL filed for a stay of Nelson’s order as they prepared an appeal to the 8th Circuit Court.

Nelson denied the request. The 8th Circuit Court granted a temporary stay four days later, allowing the league to reinstate the lockout.

However, the 8th Circuit Court overturned Nelson’s ruling July 8, 2011, upholding the legitimacy of the lockout, but allowed Nelson to impose an injunction of the lock out when dealing with free agents and rookies.

As a result, the lockout continued while players moved forward with the antitrust litigation.

Two weeks after the appellate court ruling, owners finally reached a tentative settlement with players on the antitrust case. Brady, Manning, Brees approved the settlement on July 25, 2011.

The NFLPA was recertified as the exclusive collective bargaining representative of players, and Smith and Goodell signed the agreement on July 30, 2011.

“We didn’t get everything that either side wanted … but we did arrive at a deal that we think is fair and balanced,” Smith said.

So, who won?

Some experts say both sides came out on top. Some say the Union, others the league.

Here’s my takeaway: It was a draw.

On the economic front, the union took a hit to its revenue share, dropping 10 percent, and the new rookie wage scale cut the top rookie contracts by over 50 percent—drafted players get four-year deals (with a club option for the fifth year on first rounders), undrafted players get three-year deals; each rookie class allowed a maximum “total compensation” package; strong anti-holdout rules; and funds previously allotted to rookie pool reallocated to veterans and retirees.

The union won a return to the free agency system in place from ’93 to ’09; increased benefits for player health and safety; and minimum salaries.

Owners walked away from the table with more money and kept their “franchise tag” rights.

As a result, both sides saved face and lived to fight another day.

A Final Thought

The 2011 contract fight reminds me of a time not long ago when I walked away from the bargaining table, not defeated rather dejected.

After months of tense negotiations with a nursing home whose workers I represented, we broke even.

“You know how I know we got the best labor agreement Mr. Neal,” said the nursing home’s attorney, “because neither of us are happy with it.”

He was absolutely right, we weren’t.

All it gave us was four more years to organize and strategize for our next fight.

In the end, I guess that’s what Smith and the NFLPA were certainly thinking, too. And that next deadline is coming up fast.

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.


  1. You are on crack. The NFLPA was destroyed not only in 2011 but also lost 2021 at that sitting. De Smith cost the rank and file at least $10B over the term of the CBA.

    Do some work. Tell the rank and file the truth.

    I hope George and De are sending you a check. The next round is going to brutal for the rank and file. De will fold before the real discipline is administrated.


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