The NFL’s owners are interested in extending the current collective bargaining agreement with the players -- a deal signed in 2011 that still covers this season and the four that follow. The problem is, the players probably aren’t covered.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, speaking at the end of the owners’ meetings in Houston on Wednesday, made it clear that his side wants to talk to the union about an extension. He said it was a major topic at the meetings and told everyone watching that the current deal was “working incredibly well for both sides.” Regarding the idea of sitting down to talk extension with the players, Goodell said, “We’ll do that when they’re ready.”
But he shouldn’t hold his breath.
While the NFL Players Association has taken much grief over the current deal, it has seemed to be quite good for the players. The salary cap has risen by nearly 30 percent, meaning players are being paid more. Rookie contracts have injury guarantees, and a higher percentage of contracts are guaranteed than ever before. The current CBA has incorporated expansions and improvements in post-career health care for players and their families, and there has been a significant reduction in offseason workout requirements (more on that in a minute).
Sure, you hear the odd complaint about Goodell having too much control over player discipline. But because the vast majority of NFL players never run afoul of the discipline policy, it’s not an issue over which they’re willing to fight at the negotiating table. In fact, based on conversations with multiple people close to the situation, I haven’t been able to figure out what such an issue would be. Players wouldn’t mind seeing Goodell’s power reduced a bit, and they wouldn’t mind talking about eliminating testing for marijuana. But they don’t seem to feel strongly enough about any one issue to make it worth their time to renegotiate a deal they like.
And let’s be honest here. That’s really what the owners want. Not an “extension” of the current deal, but rather an early opening of negotiations so they can obtain things they want in the short term. For example, sources say, the owners have used up all of the stadium credits they received in the 2011 CBA. Stadium credits are funds that come off the top of the revenue pile -- before it’s split with the players -- and are earmarked for new stadium construction or stadium renovation. With a new stadium on the horizon in Los Angeles and the league’s desire to build new ones in Las Vegas and possibly San Diego, the owners are looking for help.
Why can’t billionaire owners just build their own stadiums, you ask? They could -- just not at the projected profit margins to which they’re accustomed. That’s the corporate crux of “stadium credits,” a concession the NFLPA has no interest in delivering at the present time, according to sources familiar with their thinking.
In fact, the union doesn’t appear to be interested in discussing any of the issues driving the owners’ desire for an extended CBA. Not expanded playoffs, and certainly not any givebacks on the reduced offseason workout programs, which the union believes has improved quality of life for the whole of its membership. Another motivation of the owners: the opportunity to sell long-term labor peace to their broadcast partners, either when it's time to talk about re-doing the TV deals or even in the short term if they're jittery about ratings declines.
Further, an endless string of public squabbles and court battles have eroded the NFL-NFLPA relationship almost completely: issues ranging from the personal conduct policy to the $120 million in improperly collected revenue that an arbitrator ordered the league to return to the players earlier this year. There is no trust and very little interaction between the two sides. It seems slim at best for the owners to lure the players to the negotiating table.
Here's the funny part: The current CBA is one with which the players are mostly happy, while the owners seem to wish it had been a few years shorter. If the NFL wants to engage its union in talks about re-opening, re-negotiating or extending the current deal, the league will have to offer a really significant concession. At this point, it’s hard to see what that could even be.