NFL CBA Labor Issues: 5 Potential Outcomes for the 2011 NFL Season

Luke Bunger@LukeHBCardsCorrespondent IIIMarch 1, 2011

NFL CBA Labor Issues: 5 Potential Outcomes for the 2011 NFL Season

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    Let me start with a disclaimer.

    I do not have any secret sources or any information on the discussions going on between the league and the players.

    I'm not an expert on these matters. Like most fans, I have no real in-depth understanding of the CBA and why or how it works.

    As an NHL fan, I am acutely aware that without it, there is a very real possibility of losing an entire season to a lockout, but beyond that, I'm really a novice when it comes to the ins and outs of professional sports labor negotiations.

    Thankfully for you, this article is not about the labor negotiations. During this article, you will read very little about what the players want or what the league refuses to give them. You won't read about league cost-cutting measures and expense management. You will rarely hear me mention salary caps, rookie pay scales or anything like that.


    This article is about one thing, and one thing only—what, if anything, we the fans can expect from the NFL in 2011. Forgetting what the new CBA will look like and what new rules it will impose, how much football can we expect to see next year?

Option One: A Season-Long Lockout

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    Worst-case scenario though it may be, fans, players and owners need to face up to a simple and perhaps unavoidable fact.

    The 2011 NFL season may yet be called off.

    As unappealing as the thought may be, and as unlikely as we may want to believe it is, we must begin to prepare ourselves for the fact that the recently completed playoffs may be the only games played during 2011.


    How Could This Happen?

    Put simply, the players and owners both hold firm to their positions and refuse to come to any kind of compromise or give up any ground.

    A lockout is unprecedented in the NFL, though players have in the past decided to shorten the season by striking over labor issues.

    However, as the 2004-2005 NHL lockout demonstrated, losing an entire season, even in the age of multimillion-dollar TV and merchandising contracts, is neither unprecedented nor impossible.

    If the results of the NFL/NFLPA mediation are anything to go by, a lockout may be inevitable and unavoidable.

    Losing even one week of the regular season to a lockout is much more significant for a short-season league like the NFL than it would be in the NHL or MLB, and weather means that rescheduling or moving the season back becomes practically impossible if more than four weeks are missed.

    If the CBA is not sorted out by the end of September 2011 at the latest, a season-long lockout could be in the cards.


    How Likely Is It to Happen?

    Actually, not very. In spite of all the doom and gloom, fans should not expect their teams not to suit up, in some form or fashion, at some point during 2011.

    The NFLPA will likely decertify and prevent the league from locking out the players anyway, and even if they do not, the owners simply have too many other options available to them for the season to be cancelled in its entirety.

    Not sure what I am talking about? Read on.

    To say that a season-long lockout is impossible would be foolish. However, I give this outcome a 10 percent chance at most.

Option Two: NFLPA Players Locked Out, but Season Is Played with Replacements

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    If you've seen the movie The Replacements or remember the 1987 NFL players strike, you'll know what I'm talking about.

    The fact is that while without a CBA the NFL owners cannot play a season with NFLPA-registered players, there is no real reason that they cannot do so with non-union, replacement players.


    How Could This Happen?

    There is no shortage of CFL players, like Andy Fantuz (pictured)—who recently left the CFL to sign a future contract with the Chicago Bears—who would jump at the chance to make an impact in the NFL.

    These players would likely happily sign a contract directly with the team owners without involving the NFLPA if it meant getting a chance, even for a few weeks, to start in the NFL.

    The same goes for the UFL, Arena football or the many hundreds of amateur football players and free agents nationwide.

    Then there are the college football players picked in the upcoming draft. Having declared their intentions to go pro and being prevented to return to their college teams, many will also be convinced to sign directly with the team and opt out of the NFLPA.

    Heck, what loyal fan who played a little college football and still plays a pickup game each week wouldn't give his firstborn to suit up in his team colours and play as a special teamer, even if it was on a replacement team?

    Whether it lasts a whole season, a few weeks or even a few days of training camp depends on the stubbornness of the NFLPA.

    But whatever happens, I think that the owners are much more likely to attempt to play some kind of season, even if it is a shorter one, with replacements rather than simply shut up shop all year. While the league will likely lockout on March 4th, the likelihood is that this lockout would only pertain to NFLPA players, or else it can "end" the lockout when it has enough non-union players onside.

    In spite of the NFLPA's assertions that the league will make money in the event of a lockout, early calculations by The Wall Street Journal suggest that the league will actually lose $1 billion in the event of a strike or lockout after March 3, even if the whole season goes ahead.

    While playing with replacements would still lead to losses for the league, as selling out most of the games would be unlikely in the absence of the biggest name stars, the spectacle, coupled with significantly reduced player costs, would likely make these games worthwhile and claw back a big chunk of the losses the league could expect to make otherwise.

    However, the main benefit of doing this is that it forces the hand of the players association, or else many of the players themselves, which we will address on the next slide.


    How Likely Is It to Happen?

    If the lockout stretches past the first week of preseason, I would go out on a limb and suggest that it is almost a lock to happen.

    It's how the league dealt with the strike in 1987, and it was very effective, with almost all veteran players crossing the picket lines and returning to work within three weeks.

    If anything, a similar tactic would likely be even more successful in 2011 for reasons we will discuss in the following slides.

Option Three: The NFLPA Decertifies, and Players Negotiate Directly with Owners

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    Let's start with some statements.

    The NFLPA not a strong union when compared to players unions like the MLBPA or even NHLPA.

    DeMaurice Smith is not a player, has no background in professional sports and is relatively unfamiliar with the business.

    The NFL represents several hundred individuals, and consensus—and to a great extent, equality—amongst them is not the norm.

    Many players don't even like the union. Antonio Cromartie has already come out calling the Players Association leadership "a-holes" and is likely not alone in that opinion.

    The NFLPA has already threatened to decertify in order to allow players to sue the league. Doing so would effectively end the union altogether, and free agents could, theoretically, find themselves back in "Plan B" free agency days.

    By comparison, the league is fairly strong, generally resolute and, in the main, made up of members of the "Good Ol' Boy Network." In a very real way, they have the deck stacked in their favor and have many more options available to them than the players.

    If dissent is going to show, it'll likely be amongst the Players Association, and if enough cracks start to appear, the NFLPA, at least as we know it, could collapse like a house of cards.


    How Could This Happen?

    If the NFLPA decertifies, this will be the only option. Owners would be blocked from locking out the players for fear of antitrust suits, and the season would likely go ahead, but without a union and lacking a CBA, league owners would be the only people holding the cards. Players would have to accept whatever terms imposed upon them or else fight their employers in court, without the support of a union, to prove that they were unfair.

    However, even if decertification is smoke and mirrors, the owners still have another "silver bullet."

    It's one word.


    Imagine this.

    You're a player who has been playing for a few seasons in the NFL and has gotten pretty good. You've been playing for a few hundred thousand a year, not peanuts, but you're in the NFL, and if you're honest, you've splashed out. Unlike those other guys who've been paid multimillion-dollar deals for several years, you don't have much left in the bank either.

    Your contract for 2011 was going to see you move into the seven-figure salary range for the first time, and you've made some pretty big lifestyle decisions based on that belief. You've bought a big house and a nicer car than you can afford, and because you're a nice guy, you've paid your mom's mortgage too.

    Now, because of the NFLPA, you're facing a full year with some pretty huge bills and nothing to pay them with.

    You're annoyed, and rightly so. You fire up your Twitter app of choice and start writing.

    "Forget this CBA nonsense. Someone just let me play football."

    Soon after, your phone rings. It's the GM of your team.

    He tells you the team want you to play too. Your contract still stands; all you have to do is opt out of the NFLPA and join this new union they have created, and you can come back to work tomorrow. Your next pay cheque is waiting in his office.

    What do you think he's going to do?

    Traditionally, the league and the owners would have no direct access to the players.

    If the NFLPA says the players are united, the league had to assume that was the case. Dissenting voices were quickly hushed up, and the union appeared to be united.

    But in the world of 24-hour news cycles, instant gratification and direct access to players via Twitter, once it's out there, you can't take it back.

    The NFLPA's position is immediately weakened every time this happens.

    As the league found out in 1978, one player is quickly followed by several more, and before long more players are playing than are not, and the league has exactly what it wants.

    Unlike hockey or baseball, when it comes to alternate playing positions, players' options are limited. There are relatively few other professional leagues they can play for and none that can offer even a fraction of the salary available in the NFL. We'll discuss that on the next slide, however.

    Either the NFLPA will decertify, which will open up the floodgates not only to allow the players to sue owners, but also to allow owners to sign contracts directly with players, or else they will be forced to give in to the demands of the league if enough players opt out of the NFLPA.


    How Likely Is It to Happen?

    The NFLPA shutting up shop altogether is less likely than them giving in to the league's demands, but one way or another, I think if the NFL starts bringing in replacements, enough players will opt out of the union and return to work that it will be forced to concede to the majority of the league's demands or run the risk of collapse.

Option Four: NFLPA Stands Strong, CFL, AFL and UFL Benefit

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    But then again...what if the NFLPA is more resolute than we think?

    What if Antonio Cromartie is the exception, not the rule, and most players are prepared for a lockout?

    What if the replacements roll in and the players don't budge?

    It's a possibility, but then what?

    What if players start signing with the UFL, CFL and newly restarted Arena Football League?

    What if the NFLPA is more savvy than we think and already has a bunch of "all-star"-type games scheduled?


    How Could This Happen?

    We've painted the NFLPA as generally disliked by players, run by someone who doesn't really know much about football and dysfunctional and likely to collapse at a moment's notice, but then again, here are some other facts.

    DeMaurice Smith was voted in unanimously by the NFL's 32 player representatives

    Along the way, he beat out Troy Vincent, a five-time Pro Bowl selection and former NFLPA president; Trace Armstrong, a 15-year player and eight-year NFLPA president; and David Cornwell, a sports attorney with close links to many NFL players and a reputation for defending the interests of players, not the league.

    Smith was a successful trial lawyer and has a wealth of experience "winning" people to his way of thinking.

    He worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and was highly commended in his life as a lawyer, winning numerous awards. He may not know sports, but he certainly knows how to get his own way and how to get the best for those he represents.

    So perhaps we have underestimated the NFLPA.

    If enough players sign short-term, conditional contracts in the CFL, AFL and UFL, and if enough players agree to perform in several strategically scheduled All-Star games and put on enough high-entertainment value mini-competitions and skills events, the NFLPA could quickly gain the upper hand.

    Even with replacement players, TV networks will be desperate for alternative programming, as the "alternate" Cardinals at the "alternate" 49ers is hardly going to be a national ratings winner.

    The TV networks would likely be all over any additional "Pro Bowl"-style all-star exhibition game.

    Fans would likely choose this over any other NFL game featuring replacements.

    Can you imagine an "All-Star Pickup Game" scheduled versus a Monday Night Football game featuring replacements? I know which one I'd choose.

    Same goes for the UFL or CFL if enough players join those leagues. Sure, the NFL has the brand recognition, but if the UFL (whose games are streamed free on their website right now) had all of the NFL's big-name talent, then it's not hard to imagine fans defecting to the upstart league for at least the length of the lockout.

    As a spring league, the AFL could provide those NFL players who have little to no money saved up a chance to bank a little extra cash and weather the lockout without the need to opt out of the NFLPA.


    How Likely Is It to Happen?

    Before we begin, it's important to note this will only happen in the event of a lockout. If the NFLPA decertifies, all of this is a moot point anyway. But assuming the NFLPA does not decertify or that the league is successful in blocking them from doing so if they try, how likely is it?

    It happened during the NHL lockout, with players signing short-term contracts in the European and minor leagues, so why not in the NFL?

    As much fun as it sounds, unfortunately, it doesn't seem all that likely, at least not to me.

    The NFLPA simply doesn't have the expertise to arrange these sorts of games. It does not have access to stadiums and has no standing TV contracts to gain the exposure necessary. It simply doesn't have the funds to stage these sorts of national events—if it did, it wouldn't need the NFL owners at all.

    What's more, in the event of a lockout, several players will certainly sign some form of contract with rival leagues like the CFL or UFL, but neither league is an ideal solution and won't get enough players to provide a real alternative to the NFL.

    The CFL, for example, has strict limits on the number of non-Canadian (import) players allowed on team rosters, and most would not want to drop their valuable import QBs and other skill players to bring in a star on a short-term contract if he is only going to be on the team for a few weeks before returning to the NFL.

    The CFL salary cap is set at less than $5 million Canadian, so it's also not likely that there will be much money to be made from joining the CFL.

    As for the UFL, while there are no such player requirements, there is a pretty much non-negotiable salary structure that will see most players paid no more than $50,000 for the eight-week season.

    Many believed that the UFL was formed with an expressed goal of surviving until the lockout and then artificially growing its brand during a lockout because there is no alternative.

    However, with such small salaries available, the UFL will have difficulty finding many players who will risk getting injured in the UFL only to watch the NFL resume the following week.

    With Arena Football, their season starts up again in just a few weeks, on March 11, and players are set to make a flat-rate salary, set at just a few hundred dollars a game. For most, the AFL is a hobby, not their main job.

    Few NFL players who played at all in 2010 are going to put their bodies on the line so soon after the close of play for so little money.

    Unlike the NHL, there is no league with anywhere near the money to provide serious full-time employment for these elite athletes.

    Although the NHL is the biggest hockey league in the world, Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland and Germany all have well-attended, professional hockey leagues, each of which had enough money to provide short-term employment for the biggest NHL stars, many of whom started their careers in these leagues.

Option Five: NFL and NFLPA Get Their Act Together, Save Season

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    I know it seems unlikely right now, but let's not forget there is still a possibility of both sides negotiating a deal and preventing a lockout.

    What little news is forthcoming about the situation suggests that mediation has been a failure. The NFLPA is threatening to decertify to sue the league, and the league in turn has taken the issue to the National Labor Relations Board, complaining of unfair labor practices and negotiating in bad faith, none of which is particularly promising.

    However, in spite of all of this, there are positive signs.

    Could we see a new CBA in the next few days, even before the March 4th deadline?

    Don't count it out.


    How Could This Happen?

    It comes down to one thing.

    This has nothing to do with an 18-game season, rookie pay scale or anything else.

    It all comes down to money, and players and owners both will feel the pinch much sooner than the beginning of training camp.

    As already mentioned, the league could lose one billion dollars in the event of a lockout, even if the whole season goes ahead as normal.

    Conventional wisdom has it that players won't really begin to worry until training camp, once they have missed a pay check or two, but numerous players are due roster bonuses that will not be paid in the event of a lockout should a compromise not be found.

    The sides may seem far apart today with only a few days to go, but both sides have much more incentive to get the job done than either side is willing to admit at this point.

    The players likely will agree to an 18-game season and rookie pay scale, and the owners will likely give up a little more ground than they were hoping to as well, but one way or another, a deal could still be done.

    Yes, Smith and Goodell are very different negotiators than Gene Upshaw and Paul Tagliabue, and both seem more interested in being resolute and headstrong in their positions than their predecessors, but don't feel like the March 3 deadline is set in stone either. In 2006, the NFL and NFLPA were at an impasse at the expiration of the last CBA, so they agreed to an additional three days of negotiating, and two days later the deal was done.


    How Likely Is It to Happen?

    Although at times it looks like a hopeless case, as I said, I would not rule it out.

    There is more at stake this time. Extending the negotiations would not, for example, allow the NFLPA to decertify past that March 3 date, and as a trained lawyer Smith may be more confident in his abilities in the courtroom than the boardroom, so that is a factor to consider too.

    Overall, I suspect that both sides would need to move significantly closer in the next few days, with a bigger move on the part of the league, if the NFLPA is to consider forestalling decertification. Players would be prevented from suing their employers for six months if the NFLPA does not decertify by the close of the current CBA, which makes the possibility of extending talks more limited.

    In reality, we may be past this point now, but don't rule it out.