Will labor peace continue after 2020 or are NFL players preparing for war?

NFL owners claim early CBA negotiations are going well. NFLPA tells players save for year-long strike.

Barely 48 hours after the New York Times claimed everything was rosy between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, an e-mail was leaked by the union telling all agents to tell their clients to start saving money in preparation for a potential year-long work stoppage when the present CBA expires in less than two years.

That didn’t sound so rosy.

Perhaps this is merely posturing on the part of NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith as a way to keep his constituency on high alert to downside possibilities as well as on edge. But the truth is Smith is always looking for a fight, and ownership provides him with ample opportunities.

So the idea put out by management, which for years has used the Times as its go-to launcher of speculative balloons, may have been an effort to launch a peace movement before the players get on a wartime footing.

“With a possible work stoppage less than two years away, this is the opportune time to set up a structured and organized savings and budgeting plan with your clients,” Smith wrote. “I can’t stress enough the importance of having our player members in a sound financial situation should a work stoppage occur.

"We are advising players to plan for a work stoppage of at least a year in length. We are also encouraging all players to save 50 percent of their salary and bonuses and to save the entirety of their Performance Based Pay amounts they should earn over the next two regular seasons.”

While chilling if taken on its face, the truth is NFL players are no more going to miss a year of paychecks than they are going to save two years of pay in preparation for an action they have no intention of taking. How do we know this?

Because they have never been able to stay unified on anything for more than three months (which included eight games) and that resulted in a player revolt against its own union and a failed strike in 1982. A similar job action in 1987 lasted only a month after the owners did the unthinkable and used scabs (aka “replacement players’’) and played games without them.

There has been labor peace ever since, with the exception of the five months in 2011 when owners locked out the players because they felt ownership wasn’t getting a big enough share of the revenue. No games were missed because the union ultimately caved, giving back a significant percentage of gross revenues they had been receiving under their old CBA.

They then signed a 10-year deal which did not give the owners the early out they had (and exercised) in the previous CBA. Why did the owners agree to a fully binding deal? Because they knew it was loaded in their direction.

So football remains the only professional sport without truly unfettered free agency for all because of its salary cap and franchise tags. It also is the only one without fully guaranteed contracts, as aging players learn to their dismay every offseason.

If the players want to materially change that they will indeed need to strike for a year or more. The fact that ownership does not believe for a minute that they would has them convinced everything is as indeed rosy, as they told the Times.

So what is the real situation?

Some owners, as well as commissioner Roger Goodell, would like an 18-game regular season, believing they can squeeze more money out of TV networks, cable systems and streaming video operators if they add two games. But they are not willing to pay for it by increasing the players’ share of those revenues.

So how do they do it? Easy.

You want smoking weed decriminalized in the NFL as it already is in more and more parts of the U.S.? You want to see Goodell’s disciplinary powers reined in? No problem. Play more games.

It is generally believed most players don’t want to see the regular season expanded. They don’t accept that reducing the preseason by two games is an antidote to the pain and suffering that would result from two more full speed, all hands-on-deck regular season games. They are right about the likelihood of increased injuries if more regular season games are added, but what do the owners care?

Nobody will be hitting them.

The owners’ goal is to create more revenue. The easiest way to accomplish that is to add two more regular season games they can sell to TV and ad agencies. The question is: How can they get the players to agree?

Well, dumping the franchise tag and fully guaranteeing contracts would be one way, but that is not going to happen without a lengthy strike and both sides know it. So what’s the other option?

Agree to weed for medicinal purposes without penalty and a reduction in Goodell’s draconian disciplinary authority. Neither costs the owners. In fact, it would help them avoid losing players for testing positive for marijuana because there isn’t a player in football who couldn’t successfully argue he was smoking like Cheech and Chong to avoid his aches and pains, especially if he had to play in two more live-fire games.

At the recent owners' meetings Goodell said of the negotiations, “I do hope it’s sooner rather than later. I think there’s great value to all parties…that we get this issue resolved and move forward.”

That is Goodell’s hope because the easiest way to wring more money out of the league’s broadcast partners is to insure that labor peace continues another eight or 10 years beyond the end of the present CBA.

According to the Times, several preliminary negotiating sessions lacked the rancor of the 2011 discussions that led to the owner-imposed lockout and, ultimately, an improved deal for ownership and a reduced one for the players.

Players got more days off, fewer contact practices and a longer off-season. Owners got more money. You tell me who got the better of that transaction.

So what happens in two years? Do the players save their nickels and dimes so they can weather a year-long strike in search of true free agency? Or do the owners get their 18 games in exchange for a more liberal drug policy and perhaps a modest increase in the percentage of dollars going to the players?

Truth is it’s too early to tell, but the next time NFL owners lose a labor negotiation to their players it will be the first time. Because for players to win real change in how the league does business they must what Smith suggested – save their money for a protracted strike that shuts down their game the way baseball, football and hockey once shut down theirs.

The owners are willing to bet that won’t happen, and the odds are all on their side.