MIAMI -- Super Bowl week could be critical for the NFL's collective bargaining negotiations, with 30 NFLPA team player reps scheduled to meet with union leadership Thursday for an update.
Part of the message NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith wants to send to players is that if they want to dig in their heels on any one issue -- including the owners' push for an expanded, 17-game regular season -- they have to be willing to take it all the way.
Smith spoke Tuesday at an AFSCME rally of Florida state workers in downtown Miami, and he told ESPN he considered the rally an appropriate backdrop for his message to his constituents.
"I'm here with a group of people who are willing to take a labor action," Smith said, indicating the chanting disgruntled state workers in the plaza behind him. "And people need to understand that it's really easy to call for a work stoppage; it's really hard to win one. So that's why I started notifying players four years ago about saving their checks, making changes to their debt structure, and the reality is that if we want to hold out and get everything we want, that's probably going to mean a two-year strike."
That echoes the message Smith was delivering as he made his annual visit to each of the 32 teams this past season. He's trying to make sure the NFL's players understand the collective bargaining process and the ways in which they can and can't exert leverage.
"I refuse to ever look at any part of a deal with a myopic focus," Smith said. "Any collective bargaining deal is going to be a package of things. Is it going to be an agreement where you get 100% of everything you want? Probably not, and one of the reasons that we're in a position of bargaining right now is because the league didn't get everything they wanted in 2011. If they would have retained the unilateral right to increase games, my guess is we wouldn't be talking about the possibility of an early deal."
The owners approached the players early in 2019 about opening negotiations on a new CBA. The current one expires in March 2021, so at the time there were still two seasons left to play before expiration. The two sides negotiated throughout the summer and fall and reached agreement on several key issues. Smith wouldn't comment on specifics, but the proposed new deal would, according to multiple sources, include changes to the league's drug policy and discipline policy. It would include benefits improvements for current and retired players. It would include changes to training camp rules, limiting the amount of contact teams can have in training camp practices as well as the amount of time coaches can keep them on the field. In short, there are portions of the new deal that would benefit the players if they were in place in time for the 2020 season.
But the issue of expanding the regular season remains a thorny one. The owners' current proposal would not expand the regular season immediately but would give them the option to expand the season to 17 games at some point during the life of the deal. Expanded playoffs also remain a possibility, and a shortened preseason would go hand-in-hand with any expansion of the season. Throughout the negotiations, the two sides have argued over how much the players' share of revenue (currently no less than 47%) would have to rise in order to get them to agree to expand the season.
But in recent days, some prominent players have spoken out against the idea of a 17-game season under any conditions, and as a result some of the optimism regarding the potential of reaching a new deal this offseason has begun to fade. Smith made it clear Tuesday that he would do whatever the players wanted him to do, and that they would ultimately have a chance to vote on any deal he and his executive committee negotiated and recommended to them.
"We have a democratic process where I insist that players get all the facts, that they actually make the decisions, that they approach this in a serious, somber, responsible way because that's what player leaders before them have had to do," Smith said. "We have a system where the minority and everybody is heard, but at the end of the day, making players vote on all of the issues, to me, has always been important."
The meeting Thursday will include player reps from 30 of the 32 teams -- all but the 49ers and Chiefs, who are preparing for Sunday's Super Bowl. No vote is currently expected to be taken at that meeting, but the union hopes that everyone comes out of it with some idea of where things stand and what kind of action the players want to take going forward.
Whenever it is that players and owners agree on a proposed new CBA, the 32 team player reps would have to vote on it first, and it would need a two-thirds majority vote in order to advance to the next step. That next step is a vote of literally every single player in the league, and that would only require a simple majority to pass. The owners need two-thirds of their membership to support a new CBA before it can be ratified.
Assuming no vote is taken this week, the next likely flex point would be the NFLPA's annual meeting in March in Key Biscayne. At that meeting the NFLPA will have to elect a new president, since current president Eric Winston is no longer on a team and therefore, according to the NFLPA's rules, can no longer hold the position. In addition to that election, players likely will take some sort of CBA-related vote at their March meeting. Either they'd vote on a proposed new CBA or, if that's not an option, they likely would hold a vote on whether to authorize a player strike in 2021 if no new deal is approved by then.
"The job of the union is to engage in good-faith negotiations, make sure that our players are informed, but at no time take it for granted that what is really needed is the ability of players to withstand a work stoppage and win it so that they come out of it better than before they went into it," Smith said. "And if we are prepared to do that, and the players vote to take that action, we'll be fine. But anything less than being fully prepared is wishful thinking, and perhaps cheap and dangerous talk."