A little more than two years into what was supposed to be a decade of labor peace between NFL owners and players, the collective bargaining agreement between the two sides could already have a significant challenge on the horizon.
Former defensive lineman Sean Gilbert is building a campaign in hopes of ousting NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, running on a platform he says will illustrate how the NFLPA was dominated in recent CBA negotiations. NFL officials have denied in the past any collusion occurred.
In his new book, "The $29 Million Tip: How Roger Goodell Earned His Big Payday," Gilbert explains in detail why he believes the owners won the last round of labor negotiations. And perhaps most compelling, Gilbert believes he can get players out of their current labor deal prior to the expiration of its 10-year term by trying to prove the NFL violated anti-collusion provisions in the CBA.
Gilbert, a Pro Bowler and 10-year NFL veteran who retired in 2004, was most recently involved in advising Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back Darrelle Revis in contract negotiations with the Jets. Revis is Gilbert's nephew. He also was well-known for a high-profile holdout with the Redskins, sitting out the 1997 season and forcing a trade to the Carolina Panthers that ultimately culminated in him signing a contract worth more than $20 million in excess of what he was offered in Washington.
While Gilbert declined on the advice of counsel to elaborate on the details of any collusion action he could bring, he says players should look at his track record to determine if his actions speak louder than his words.
"If you look at my history, the team I've put around me in the past, and the team I have around me now you'll see that the one thing we don't do is bluff," Gilbert said.
According to Gilbert's book, he could attempt to get back to the negotiating table by presenting the league with a proposal he says would make the owners $2 billion per year.
Beyond potentially tearing up the current CBA agreement, Gilbert wants the players to give the owners an 18-game schedule, an idea that Goodell has pushed for in the past. In return, Gilbert says he wants the players to get to free agency in three years instead of four, and wants rookie contracts limited to three years as well.
"Obviously, initial reaction [to an 18-game season] is to rhetorically ask, 'How much more damage will I do to my body?' Gilbert said in his book. "I understand that feeling. I am personally reminded of that all day long. The pain is always there.
"But players need to think about how 18 games can benefit them."
He says "by adding two more games to the schedule and moving the Super Bowl to President's Day weekend in February, I believe the NFL will boost revenues by at least $2 billion per year. In addition, the value of each franchise will greatly appreciate.
"It is universally acknowledged that the money for players is in free agency. By getting to free agency after three years instead of four, a player would be a free agent after 54 games rather than the current 64 games. Players need to ask themselves if the 10-game reduction is worth it. In addition, players would have one less offseason, one less training camp and fewer exhibitions [before hitting free agency.]"
In 2012, the NFL's Management Council Executive Committee raised eyebrows by stripping cap space from the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins. The reason? According to the NFL, it was for engaging in salary maneuvers during the uncapped 2010 season that created "an unacceptable risk to future competitive balance." The council docked the Redskins $36 million in cap-space while the Cowboys lost $10 million.
To those familiar with the CBA negotiations, this appeared to be an admission by the NFL there was an unwritten agreement by teams to continue operations as if a salary cap was still in place. The NFLPA would later claim this was a clear sign of collusion.
In response, the NFL Players Association brought a collusion claim in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, seeking in excess of $1 billion.
Ultimately, union-friendly Judge David Doty said the union couldn't proceed with a claim because it had contracted away its ability to sue the league for collusion-related issues that originated prior to the execution of the 2011 CBA.
NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah didn't respond to a request for comment.
While the case against the owners never got off the ground, a number of agents said they communicated their concerns to the NFLPA at that time, but were told they needed to produce evidence in order for the NFLPA to pursue a claim.
"I specifically remember the union asking us if we could find any actual proof of collusion during the uncapped year," agent Harold Lewis said. "The answer was yes from a number of agents. But the proof was exhibited by the teams not taking advantage of the uncapped year."
Lewis says it was clear teams were colluding because they refused to structure contracts in a way that took advantage of not having a salary cap for one season. Essentially, they had a chance to buy top-tier players with up-front money and still remain under the salary cap down the road. But instead of stacking salaries, Lewis said teams declined to load contracts into the uncapped year – an action that made it appear they were operating with an off-the-books salary cap.
"We felt we could help a team prepare for the future through contractual maneuvers allowed during an uncapped year," Lewis said. "But when we presented [suggestions] to teams we were always told, 'No, we'd rather not do it that way.' It didn't make any sense. Why not set yourself up for the future? It was constantly fought."
While some agents and players have spoken out about their feelings on who "won" at the table during CBA negotiations, opinions vary.
In his book Gilbert points to a number of reasons he thinks the players got a bad deal and should fight for a better one. Among them:
• That "with the stroke of a pen, more than $4.5 billion shifted from the players to the owners." Gilbert claims that owners made "roughly $450 million more [in the first year of the new CBA] than they had in the last year of the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement."
• That the union and players entered into a 10-year deal that had no opt-out clause. Gilbert emphasized the ever-evolving business of the NFL and the need to re-examine the CBA at regular intervals in order to ensure the players are still getting a fair deal.
Gilbert wrote: "The owners not only drove a hard bargain, they sealed that bargain for a decade. That was unprecedented and it has to make you wonder one simple question: Why would the owners – the people who are experts in the money side of the football business – ever agree to such a long-term deal if they weren't completely sure that the deal was to their liking?"
• That Roger Goodell received a "$29 million tip" as a direct result of how successful he was in negotiating what Gilbert deems a favorable deal for the owners. That figure is derived from the $29.94 million Goodell was paid in 2011 after getting the CBA done. That salary represented an $18.94 million raise from the $11 million he made in his best year prior to the execution of the CBA.
Gilbert hasn't been alone in his criticism. When other news outlets began opining that NFL owners won the negotiations handily, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma took to Twitter to voice his displeasure. Specifically, Vilma tweeted out a July 2013 Boston Globe article suggesting the "owners obliterated the NFL Players Association" in the 2011 CBA negotiations.
"Should've known when that guy [Goodell] got a $20M raise … smh [shaking my head]," Vilma tweeted.
Others expressed varying degrees of criticism, with the caveat that hindsight often doesn't account for the pressures in place at the time of the negotiations.
"As a player representative, would I opt out of the current CBA prior to the 10-year term if it was an option? Yes," said agent Blake Baratz. "But only under the premise that I had all of the players on the same page which is an extremely tough proposition. The union was in an impossible spot with little to no leverage. When you have no leverage, you get squeezed. When you get squeezed, you get an unfair result. Period."
"If you polled 32 owners, I'm sure they'd be frustrated about parts of the deal," agent Joe Linta said. "I'm sure De Smith is unhappy with parts of the deal. I mean, they were negotiating over stuff like what's the per diem for dinner three years from the execution of the agreement. I'm just saying there's a lot we don't know because we weren't privy to the details. It's easy to be an armchair quarterback on these things.
"I think both sides have to be comfortable in their own skin on what they agreed to because you don't want to injure the goose that's laying the golden eggs. This brand – the NFL – is so powerful now, you don't want to do anything to disrupt the brand."