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Wednesday April 21 2021
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Locking Horns

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For a league that prides itself on parity, where any team can rise and fall any year, it is only fitting that the NFL would post the highest ratings in Super Bowl history just one month before allowing the salary cap to expire under their current collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

The NFL has thrived since its last work stoppage in 1987, but if a new CBA is not agreed to by March 1, the owners could lock the players out.

Players around the league—several with current and former ties to the Steelers—are following the negotiations closely. No one is more qualified to speak about the negotiations than former Steelers Mark Bruener and Nolan Harrison. Bruener spent 14 years as an NFL tight end and six as the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) vice president. Harrison, an ex-defensive end, spent 10 years in the league and also has 14 years invested in the NFLPA, as he was recently promoted to senior director of former player services.

In addition, current Steelers QB Charlie Batch has assumed an influential role in his position on the NFLPA Board of Player Representatives with support from alternates Ryan Clark and Antwaan Randle El.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell visited Steelers training camp last month and spoke with Batch, who said their discussion was brief and informal, but added that the negotiations haven’t been serious anyway.

“Because there hasn’t been any fairness on their side as far as revealing their books,” Batch charged.

There are several issues on the table during these negotiations, mainly the revenue split between the owners and players, extension of the regular season, a rookie wage scale and testing for human growth hormones. Each issue brings with it a quagmire of smaller issues that are creating long and contentious negotiations.

Revenues

When it comes to revenues, owners and players can’t even agree as to what the current split is, let alone what they think a new one should be. The owners claim that the split is currently 60/40 in favor of the players; however, players contest that this split excludes $1 billion in owners’ revenue considered a “technical exclusion” under the current CBA. The players maintain that they have not received more than 53 percent of total revenue in any year since 2001.

The main concern of the owners is the capital costs required for new stadium construction. They want the players to kick in more money to help cover debt service on recently-built stadiums across the league. The NFLPA says they’re already obligated to commit more than $800 million toward the new Giants/Jets stadium, which was recently finished at a price of $1.6 billion (quite expensive when you consider Heinz Field was built for $264 million). The NFL is still exploring options to put a franchise in Los Angeles, and you can expect a new stadium in LA will cost at least the price paid in New York.

Extension of Season

Discussions about extending the regular season entails replacing two preseason games with regular season games; there would still be 20 total games as there has been since 1978. However, the additional playing time and extra intensity required from starters for two additional regular season games would impact off-season workout requirements, injured reserve rules and roster sizes.

“That would be adding almost 120-plus plays that a player would be participating in, which would have a significant impact on them,” said Bruener. “We just don’t know how much of an impact it would be.”

Rookie Wages

The rookie wage scale is an issue that is important to the success of both sides and is expected to be one of the first issues on which the sides come to terms. Currently, each side is amenable to withholding $200 million from the current rookie salary pool, dedicating $100 million to proven veterans and the other $100 million toward pensions.

The disagreement on this subject lies in the NFLPA’s request to limit rookie contracts to three years before allowing players to become unrestricted free agents. Current rookie contracts are limited to four years. NFL Executive Vice President Jeff Pash is adamantly opposed to four-year deals, saying the issue “completely undermines the whole system of competitive balance in this league.”

HGH Testing

Contrary to NFLPA arguments against human growth hormone (HGH) testing, it has recently been instituted in Minor League Baseball and the Canadian Football League. NFLPA officials have been opposed to the testing because it is an invasive procedure requiring blood to be drawn. Blood testing is already a part of the current preseason physical examination required of players by the league, but HGH testing requires ongoing blood samples.

Let’s Make A Deal

The owners have consistently said that they want to get a deal done without a lockout, but they have not been shy about flexing their muscles. They recently renewed their contract with DirecTV in which they’ll receive $1 billion annually – even in a lockout year. Fox and CBS will also contribute more than $712 million and $622 million respectively, regardless of a lockout.

The players have argued that these deals were not negotiated in good faith because the owners left money on the table.

“I’ve been in the financial services industry for ten years,” said Harrison. “I’ve never heard of signing a contract where if I don’t get a product, I’m still having to pay for it.”

In addition, the owners quietly hired New York attorney Bob Batterman, renowned for his work as the NHL’s lockout attorney in 2004-05. Also, many coaches and scouts are having work-stoppage clauses forced into their contracts, requiring them to take pay cuts of up to 50 percent, or have their contracts suspended or terminated upon 20 days notice of a lockout.

Of course, there is a big difference between a lockout in March and a lockout in September. A lockout in March does not necessarily have to have a great impact, as there will still be an NFL Draft and teams will still hold the rights to their players.

Come September, however, everyone might be a little more motivated to meet in the middle.

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