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Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement.

As the deadline looms on the NFL’s crunch money talks tonight Steven O’Rourke slowly explains what it’s all about.

Players, unions and NFL officials are looking at a lock-out after tonight's midnight deadline.
Players, unions and NFL officials are looking at a lock-out after tonight's midnight deadline.
Image: AP Photo/J.Pat Carte

IF, AS SEEMS likely, the clock strikes 12 (Eastern) without a deal between the league and the National Football League Player’s Association (NFLPA), American football will be facing its first work stoppage since 1987. Steven O’Rourke guides us through the murky world of collective bargaining.

What’s a Collective Bargaining Agreement?

The current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) – in place since 1993 – is the document that governs all contract negotiations between owners and the NFLPA.

It controls issues such as minimum player wage, free agency, salary caps and also dictates that the top 15 teams – in terms of earnings – must subsidise the bottom 17 through revenue sharing.

This particular agreement was initially due to expire at the end of 2012 season but, in 2008, the NFL owners took the decision to end it two years early. The two sides have remained entrenched since.

Who is involved in negotiating a new CBA?

The Commish: as NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell is supposedly the man in the middle but his allegiances are very much with the owners. Commissioner since 2006, Goodell has been at the forefront of expanding the NFL beyond US borders and is a keen supporter of an extended season.

The Owners: mostly extraordinarily rich middle-aged white men, the owners – Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Robert Kraft (New England Patriots) and Jerry Richardson (Carolina Panthers) in particular – are keen to protect the high-risk investments they’ve made both in players and stadia and overturn what they see as unfair obligations placed on them by the current CBA.

The Union: the NFLPA believe, quite rightly, that without the players, there is no product and so the players should get a bigger slice of the pie. DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director, has believed for months that a work stoppage is inevitable and has been quite vocal in his criticism of the NFL and the owners:


What are the main sticking points?

It should come as no surprise that money is central to this whole situation. The owners are convinced they got a bad deal in 1993 which is why they chose to end the CBA two years early.

While revenue sharing is, in theory, a good thing, many teams like the Cincinnati Bengals have very favourable stadium deals which mean they don’t have to make the kind of multi-million dollar investment that Jerry Jones has done in Dallas.

Under the current deal, despite paying a fortune in interest on his own stadium, Jones still has to subsidise an owner like Mike Brown of the Bengals who, percentage wise, makes a bigger profit. At least that’s what the likes of Jones are saying. They refuse to open their books to public scrutiny so it’s difficult to ascertain how real their financial peril actually is.

For the union, it’s a matter of risk. They believe that the players risk their career every time they take the field and should be rewarded for that. They see the new agreement as a way for the league to force their members into taking an 18% pay cut.

This is because, at the moment, the owners receive just more than $1 billion to cover their costs from an NFL revenue pool of approximately $9 billion. The players get 60% of what remains. Under the new deal the players would still get 60% but only after the owners have taken nearly $2.5 billion for themselves.

How can agreement be reached?

In terms of meeting tonight’s deadline, it can’t. However, the most obvious solution is to generate more income. As far as I can see, this can only be done by extending the length of the regular season to 18 games and cutting the traditional number of pre-season games from four to two.

This would clearly be seen as victory for the owners though and, in a disagreement that’s as much about perception as it is anything else, it’s difficult to imagine the NFLPA agreeing to it without major concessions on issues of health care – especially around the long-term damage caused by concussions – from the owners.

Whatever happens, the biggest losers are likely to be NFL fans as there is a real risk that the entire 2011 season, not to mention 2012, could be lost.

Tonight’s deadline is significant only in that it shows just how entrenched both sides are.  Don’t expect either to blink as the 11th hour approaches.

About the author:

Steven O'Rourke

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