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NFL labor talks cloud season kickoff
NFL labor peace is going the way of the Hupmobile.
Yes, the Hupmobile.
The league itself was formed in 1920 at a downtown Canton auto dealership specializing in an all-steel vehicle that stopped being made 20 years later. As implausible a concept as a primitive roadster in today’s marketplace, the thought of a Collective Bargaining Agreement that splits revenue equitably between owners and players would have proven equally far-fetched to George Halas and Co.
The CBA has helped the league reach an unprecedented level of popularity and prosperity since being enacted 18 seasons ago amid legal pressure brought by the NFL Players Association. But as the NFL prepares to celebrate its 90th anniversary, the labor pact is almost out of gas. Like tailpipe exhaust, concerns about a work stoppage next year have created a dirty cloud that hangs over Thursday night’s opening of the 2010 regular season.
One of a fleet of sobering reminders came in early August about an hour’s drive away in Cleveland. On the morning of the NFL preseason kickoff between Dallas and Cincinnati, Cowboys players were asked by media at their team hotel about the pending labor strife.
“For a lot of players there is concern,” said Dallas tight end Jason Witten, who works with linebacker DeMarcus Ware as the club’s NFLPA representatives. “But you have to control what you can control, too. That’s what our focus has to be as players.
“This is the game we love. We don’t want to see it go.”
Yet as each day passes, the NFL and NFLPA move closer to the first work stoppage since the 1987 players strike. The two sides are talking but no tangible progress is being reported. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith remains insistent that teams reveal their financial statements before a deal can be reached. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell won’t bite.
That impasse is just the start. Other topics on the table for discussion include:
• Goodell’s desire to expand the regular season from 16 to 18 games starting in 2012.
• The owner-driven push for a rookie salary cap.
• The NFLPA’s expected counter of shortening the number of accrued seasons needed for unrestricted free agency if rookie concessions are made.
• The possibility of expanding retirement benefits for current and former players and the method through which those increased costs will be accounted.
And finally, the biggest sticking point of them all: How will future revenue from a league that generated almost $9 billion in 2009 get divided between the two sides?
The NFL owners who approved the current CBA in 2006 by a 30-2 margin voted unanimously to opt out of the agreement three years later. Teams claimed that player salaries were rising disproportionately compared to their own operating costs. The NFLPA disputes that contention and is furious that most NFL teams slashed player payroll this season with no salary cap in place.
Goodell believes negotiations between the two sides will intensify as the CBA expiration deadline approaches. But unless a deal can be reached, the running clock on the NFLPA’s web site says a lockout will occur on March 1, 2011.
At that point, the NFL offseason as we know it will grind to a halt following the NFL scouting combine. The greatest excitement will probably come in the courtroom as each side tries to apply pressure to the other. There won’t be free agency until a new CBA is agreed upon. The draft will be held but those rookies won’t have offseason workouts they can attend with their new squads.
In May, Vice Chairman of Fox Sports Ed Goren said he expected labor strife to continue until August 2011. Should it continue beyond that, the regular season’s post-Labor Day start will be jeopardized.
There is a perception that the league and NFLPA will never let the situation reach that point because the NFL is wildly prosperous and there is so much money at stake for both sides. Plus, neither Goodell nor Smith wants to be remembered as the executives that killed the golden goose.
“I’m confident because the league has been so good that things will get worked out and we can move forward,” Witten said.
Even so, both sides have already assembled a lockout strategy that includes sizeable war chests. The NFL’s billionaire owners are better prepared to weather a lengthy work stoppage but may lay off staff members and even assistant coaches to save money. The NFLPA has advised its members to save 25 percent of this year’s earnings as insurance, although it’s fair to wonder how many have the foresight to envision rainy days ahead.
There is one thing that teams and players can agree upon: Their focus must stay on actually playing football in 2010.
“That (labor) stuff is just extra on the side that you don’t think about per se,” Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said. “As players, you can’t necessarily change anything right now. We have people elected in place to talk for the group.
“It will come to the point where I’m sure we’ll all be more a part of it. Right now, it’s all about the season.”
A season that officially ends February 6 with Super Bowl XLV at Dallas Cowboys Stadium.
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