As NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith prepare to begin negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement this week, it's looking very much like there will be an uncapped year in 2010 and a lockout in 2011.
It seems unavoidable. After the owners gave up so much in the 2006 negotiations, they will have to regain their grip by locking the players out.
NFL owners have been following the trail blazed by baseball execs for two decades now. They have become a splintered group of haves and have-nots, with varying priorities in the management of their franchises. The result, as happened in baseball long ago, has been a shift in power from ownership to the union. Now, NFL players are nearly as powerful as baseball players.
In 2006, NFL owners let themselves be bullied into a corner. Feeling the pressure of free agency and not wanting to disrupt their offseason schedule, they bowed to the union and gave up unprecedented control.
As a result of those negotiations, the players ended up with almost 60 percent of the revenues, along with greater power to retain unearned bonus money. The owners not only gave up the money, but they also let the union dictate how they would divide revenues. So the richer teams are paying a bigger portion—and are not happy about it.
The owners opted out of that CBA last fall, meaning 2009 will be the last season with a salary cap under the current deal. The 2010 season would then have no spending ceiling, but it also would have no floor. Before his death, Gene Upshaw said that if the salary cap disappeared, the union would never go back to it.
Smith, elected to succeed Upshaw earlier this year, has parroted that stance.
Expect the owners to call the union's bluff and go to an uncapped year in 2010. The owners let themselves be backed into a dead-end deadline last time, and they will not this time. They are prepared to take back control of their franchises and the game, and they will hold ground on certain issues until the players relent.
"We're not specifically setting any deadlines or any dates," Goodell told reporters in New York this week. "Our issue is we know we have two more years of football. If it takes right up until the final moment, then it takes up until the final moment."
Among the issues the owners plan to address:
- They want to renegotiate how much money they are paying players.
- They want to create a rookie wage scale to rein in the outrageous paydays given to the top draftees.
- They want to regain the ability to reclaim bonus money when players violate their contracts.
- They want to redo the revenue-sharing model.
- They want to get the players to agree to expand the season, turning at least one preseason game into a regular-season contest.
That's a lot of change, and the union is unlikely to go for much of it without getting plenty in return.
Among the things the union likely will want to discuss:
- Benefits for retired players.
- Outside appeal for commissioner-mandated suspensions.
- Better procedures for dealing with treatment and disclosure of injuries.
- The return of the Pro Bowl to Hawaii.
It might be tough to even get any real bargaining started, because the union wants full disclosure of the league's profits so it can pick a place to draw its economic line in the sand. Smith has said he wants the owners to prove the deal is not working for them.
Goodell has said the union knows all it needs to know—"league revenue to the penny."
As for the rookie wage scale, Smith is right when he says the owners have put themselves in a bad spot by overpaying rookies. True, the owners have let player agents dictate the annual increases in bonus money paid to the top rookies.
But it has snowballed to a point that it would be very difficult to change without being written into the next CBA.
Smith has said it's an ownership issue, not a player problem, but many veteran players have expressed dismay at the millions being lavished on unproven rookies. It means the owners have some leverage on this issue.
Overall, however, it doesn't seem like they have enough to offer for what they hope to achieve.
The league will have to use the "We won't ask for it back if you do this for us" tactic. In other words, the owners might let the players take at 60 percent, if the owners get everything else they want—a rookie pay scale, rights to reclaim bonus money, a new revenue-sharing model, and an expanded season.
The owners also could give in on the smaller issues the players might push.
Of course, Smith's response to the owners will be, "Why should we give you anything when we have everything?"
But Smith will quickly learn that the players no longer have the upper hand. The owners appear poised to do whatever it takes to regain control of the NFL, and that's why it looks very much like there will be an uncapped year in 2010—and a lockout in 2011.
"From the Top" is a weekly look at issues involving coaching, management, and ownership of the NFL's 32 franchises. Check out past columns at Football.com.