With just over 100 days left in the current collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the players' union, each side seems to be playing with an ace up its sleeve. The owners are using their 18-game schedule card while the players are fiddling with their own trump card of decertification.
The NFL has a provision in the current labor deal that could allow for expansion to an 18-game schedule, and in September it put forth a proposal to start that expanded schedule in the 2011 season. The current agreement also states that the league would have to negotiate with the union for additional compensation for those extra regular-season contests.
The union has been against an expanded schedule; players are concerned about the further imposition into what are already alarmingly short careers, and the union is unhappy about the league's most recent CBA proposal that calls for an 18 percent giveback of net revenue by the players to offset team costs.
While displeased with the prospect of playing more games for less money, the union recently made a counterproposal on the 18-game idea. In a recent interview with Yahoo! Sports, NFLPA assistant executive director George Atallah said that the expanded schedule is not yet a fait accompli, but that heading in that direction may be the best way to move things along.
"We all know what the league has done in taking steps toward a lockout, and our counterproposal to the 18-game schedule was another way for us to be as responsive as possible, and to negotiate in good faith," Atallah said. "Our counterproposal is not primarily based on the financial construction of what 18 games would look like, but rather on the dangers of the game, and minimizing the impact that two extra games per season would have on players."
The NFLPA's counterproposal would expand the season from one to two bye weeks for every team, give each team 56- or 57-man active rosters (the NFL has offered one extra roster spot from the current 53), increase the salaries of every player under contract by a prorated percentage of his total annual salary, reduce the number of years players need to become eligible for post-career health benefits, limit the amount of contact in training camp and reduce voluntary offseason workouts.
The league reportedly has said it won't comment on the union's counterproposal.
One of Atallah's primary concerns is that in his experience, the NFL has not been forthcoming with injury and financial information.
"You can't ask players to play extra games without providing injury data or other information that would help to reduce the wear and tear on the players," Atallah said. "The owners can't view players as their automobiles – if they break down, you can just replace them with somebody else. That's not how we approach the negotiations, and I guess you'd have to ask the NFL why their initial proposal only included one extra roster spot."
While that drama works itself out, the NFLPA, led by executive director DeMaurice Smith, has been on a two-month tour of team locker rooms and meeting rooms, handing out voting cards and receiving unanimous votes in return to decertify the union. It seems odd on the surface for Smith to stump for a movement that appears to put him out of business, but there's a method to this madness. The NFL is currently protected by an antitrust exemption because it deals with a players' union; if that union were to disappear and the players were to act as a trade organization, they could take the owners to court in the event of a lockout. This happened in 1992, when eight players sued the league over what they considered to be illegal free agency. The union had decertified in 1989 when a more restrictive version of free agency went into place. That suit led to what we now know as free agency in the NFL, not to mention two decades of relative labor peace and historic profitability.
"Historically, players gain free agency through decertification," Atallah said. "When the NFL and the owners have taken aggressive action against the players, or they have taken action to restrict employee rights, the union and the players have decertified to fight for those rights in the courts. This would be no different. If the players decide to renounce their interest in being part of the NFLPA, the league can be subject to antitrust violations. Their position on a lockout is one of the things that could be challenged in court."
The impact of such a lawsuit in this case could be far-reaching, as Major League Baseball discovered in 1995 when then-federal judge Sonia Sotomayor ruled that in a strike that crossed two different seasons, the owners were trying to subvert a labor system and "placed the entire concept of collective bargaining on trial."
Smith and the NFLPA's player advocates spent a good part of this week on the West Coast, gathering decertification votes from the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders. The Raiders were the final team to vote – they did so on Thursday, and all 32 teams are now on the same path.
The general perception among football fans is that in this battle, gamesmanship has become more important than the game for both sides. It is a perception that Atallah is fighting. "One of the things I told a gathering of fans in Pittsburgh recently," he said, "was that we will do everything we can to get a deal done."