Missing games would get NFL players leverage in CBA, but fund for rank-and-file is needed

The complaining and campaigning from certain veterans again bubbled to the surface on Thursday morning, shortly after the NFL Players Association sent a new, controversial collective bargaining agreement to its constituency.

Not that this was a surprise. Ratifying the CBA may bring labor peace (and some other plusses, which we’ll get to), but it also will bring headaches. Headaches that led several influential players (including Maurkice Pouncey, Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman, J.J. Watt and Russell Wilson) to speak out before its release.

For starters, the addition of a 17th game to the regular season and playoffs expansion is nothing more than peak NFL greed and hypocrisy. Both are complete abominations that no one, even football dorks like me who love the game, was asking for.

The NFL handled concussions so poorly in the past that head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) became a threat to the game’s future. Making the game safer became a massive priority. Yet now the NFL is asking players for more football in its next CBA?

Coming from a league whose reputation for coveting the almighty dollar precedes itself, this was sadly predictable. As always, the players, who will be subject to more wear and tear on their bodies, will be left holding the bag. So will anyone who has enjoyed the league’s nice, even schedule and playoff structure, arguably the fairest in pro sports, for the past four decades.

Additionally, the deal will essentially eliminate veterans’ ability to hold out during training camp, as players who do so will not only incur massive fines — which will now be mandatory — they will also lose an accrued season, thus hurting their ability to get to free agency.

There are other negatives to the deal like its 10-year length with no opt-out, an eternity. But these are the most devastating to veterans, many of whom have recently taken to these Twitter streets to air out their grievances. Kenny Stills released a two-minute video making the case to his fellow players to vote no, noting that well-paid veterans have put together a fund to mitigate the risk of a future work stoppage, the chances of which will rise if players don’t approve it.

It was a smart video aimed at the correct crowd, one the league’s team owners were targeting to get the deal passed: young and/or non-established players who haven’t made big-time money yet, players who might not be able to afford to vote “no” on the deal. They make up the overwhelming majority of the league’s rank-and-file all of whom would be accepting risk by voting no.

Why? For one, the 32 team owners — the overwhelming majority are cold-blooded businessmen — have already stated they’ll table talks until next year if the new CBA, which the NFLPA has spent months negotiating, is not ratified by a simple majority vote. If they’re serious about that and we reach this point next year without a new deal, the chances of a lockout or strike likely go up significantly, which means no money for who knows how long.

For a player without a ton of money, that could be one hell of a risk to take, especially since the new CBA the union is voting on has some positives that players must consider. They would gain an additional percentage point of the league profits, at 48 percent. It’s not the 50/50 split that everyone who cares at all about fairness wants to see, but it’s still a step toward getting there, up from their current 47 percent share.

What’s more, player benefits improve and the roster rules will be tweaked to allow more players to accumulate accrued seasons faster, which should lead to players hitting free agency faster (and thus making more money, in theory).

Add all that to relaxed rules on marijuana — players will no longer be subject to suspension for using it or any other substance of abuse— and that the minimum salary will immediately increase nearly $100,000 per player, and it’s a deal that gives players who don’t have the stomach for a fight plenty of reasons to vote “yes.”

So it’s here, in the gray space between what veterans likely think is best (rejecting it) and what young and/or unestablished players think is best (taking the deal and avoiding future labor strife) that we’re about to learn something very interesting. By the end of next week, after the votes are counted and the results are announced, we’ll learn how much sway the big-name players who spoke out against it really have with their contemporaries.

If they get enough of the rank-and-file to cast down the ballot, they better be serious about the rainy-day fund because missing actual games — while massively unpopular with the viewing public — is the only way for players in American sports to make significant tangible gains.

NBA players dealt with a lockout as recently as 2011, missing regular-season games. MLB players went on strike in 1994, infamously wiping out regular-season games and the postseason. NFL players last missed regular-season games in 1987, when they went on strike. Granted, it’s much harder for football players to hold the line due to their numbers. It’s because of this that their leverage in negotiations against billionaire team owners is limited. So yes, as someone who is decidedly pro-player, if the majority of players go the “no” route over the next week, I hope they’re ready to go to the mattresses.

But if the CBA is passed, it will be the latest sign that NFL players, as a whole, aren’t ready to do what it takes to bring about the change to the CBA that players like Stills have been pining for.

Either way, what figures to come over the next week will be pretty instructional. I just hope that whatever happens, players continue to take the steps necessary over the coming weeks, months and years to bridge the gap between what they are getting in their partnership with the league, and what they should be getting.

NFL owners' proposed collective bargaining agreement has been sent to player for a vote. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
NFL owners' proposed collective bargaining agreement has been sent to player for a vote. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

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