The NFL and players are on a collision course over safety and money. They have weeks to avert disaster

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·7 min read

An NFL source was breaking down the league’s proposal to draw back player salaries as much as 35 percent to help manage revenue losses in 2020. Framing it as an ask that was just the tip of the iceberg, the source said it foreshadowed a coming fight that will put the NFL and players’ union into deeply dug trenches and possibly endanger the start of the season in September.

Finally, the source spelled out the revenue loss and lack of a player giveback in one sentence.

“It’s a major problem that isn’t going away,” the source told Yahoo Sports on Thursday. “One way or the other, it’s going to have to be bargained out [between the league and the union] if this is going to work.”

A major problem that isn’t going away.

This is the NFL behind the scenes right now. As the league puts forth ancillary — and somewhat nonsensical — protocols like not being able to do a postgame jersey swap, there are bigger fish to fry in the next few weeks. And the space to get this work done is shrinking to the point that it’s alarming players.

So much so, that when the NFL Players Association had an open call with membership last week, a litany of players expressed serious misgivings about the reliability of safety protocols — not to mention the swath of unanswered questions. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers asked what would happen if an asymptomatic player tested positive before the Super Bowl. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt questioned whether the NFL had all the right protocols lined up for the opening of training camp.

Suddenly, a picture emerged: With camp reporting just weeks away and COVID-19 anxiety as real as ever, NFL players appeared to be extremely uncertain about whether they were the ones taking the majority of the risks in this endeavor. Naturally, their questions have centered on whether the NFL was ready to protect them.

An agent who listened to the NFLPA call with one of his players said he heard “a lot of anxiety.”

Considering the work left to be done — and with multiple team officials who spoke to Yahoo Sports describing the upcoming training camps with some type of verbiage describing a litany of unknowns — “a lot of anxiety” makes sense. Not to mention a lot of potential for things to go sideways. Consider the considerable work left on the table before camps are slated to open on July 28.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 18: A general view of Defensive End J.J. Watt #99 and his teammates of the Houston Texans during the national anthem before playing the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on October 18, 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Texans defeated the Jaguars 31 to 20. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Texans star J.J. Watt (99) questioned if the NFL has proper safety protocols ready for the 2020 season. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

Bargains must be struck with NFL, NFLPA

The money — whether it’s the pay of players in 2020 or the impact on future salary caps — has to be bargained out.

The COVID-19 testing regimens have to be bargained out.

The protocols about how camps can be run on a daily basis have to be bargained out.

The safety protocols beyond testing have to be bargained out.

Equipment changes, such as mandatory face shields, have to be bargained out.

And maybe, above all else, players have to be convinced the NFL has done everything possible to guarantee their safety.

That’s a lot to accomplish in less than three weeks. And it might be impossible. It might mean a late start for training camp. It might mean no preseason games. And it might lead to a delay in the regular season, something the NFL absolutely does not want, evidenced by an offseason that ran largely on time, albeit in a different form than past years.

But for 2020 to start on time, all of the aforementioned questions have to be resolved. And after they are, the NFL has to have a clear plan to keep players in the fold once an outbreak of coronavirus happens — which could have a chilling effect that causes players to pull out from the season en masse. Planning to get the season underway is only half of the effort. Keeping the season underway looms just as large. And there may not be a way to convince players that adequate measures exist for that until an outbreak happens.

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - JANUARY 26: Michael Thomas #13 of the New Orleans Saints looks on during the 2020 NFL Pro Bowl at Camping World Stadium on January 26, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Saints star Michael Thomas had a colorful reaction to ownership asking for players to put 35 percent of their 2020 salary into escrow. He tweeted: "Lol everyone will sit out and not play until they get their stuff together before we do this. 😂" (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

Financial storm is going to hit NFL hard

There are two significant fronts of attack that the NFL and NFLPA are trying to remedy now. The first is getting everything in place to have an actual season. The second is how to deal with the unavoidable financial meteor that is heading for the NFL. The one that players believe they shouldn’t have to deal with, because they’re taking the lion’s share of infection risks by going out and slamming into each other in the name of having a season and keeping the television revenues safe and sound, is money.

The players and union have been sending a unified message: They should be paid every single cent owed to them — with no 35 percent discount — and they should get that money with no preseason games and with teams doling out massive sums of money for testing and safety while simultaneously selling significantly fewer tickets.

That’s setting up a financial face-off that is bound to rear its head again before September. By suggesting a 35 percent reduction in salaries to help offset operating costs, the NFL has sent a clear message from the franchise owners: If we’re going to lose revenue, players should lose some salary. We should be equal partners in the loss.

One league source familiar with some of the revenue-loss models spelled out why team owners feel this way, telling Yahoo Sports on Thursday that some projections suggest a revenue hit so costly that the 2021 salary cap may have to reduce by as much as $40 million per team to reflect the 2020 dip. Such a reality would be Armageddon for a multitude of teams that are already looking like they’ll be pressed against the salary cap in 2021.

“More likely than not, [the NFL] and the union would smooth it out by taking away smaller increments of money from future caps,” the source said. “It would be made up in the aggregate of five or six or 10 salary caps than all at once.”

A high-ranking AFC team source confirmed this same likelihood — that a hit will be absorbed, but also spread out.

But the league source added: “That hit could be remedied if players were willing to give back some salaries now to help teams deal with costs that are going to rise and revenues that are going to shrink.”

The union has made its feelings on a lump-sum salary giveback clear. It’s not going to happen. As in, never. Instead, it will be future players who will lose out on some capital as future salary caps rise less aggressively than originally planned.

Which takes us back to the start of the dwindling days that lie ahead — and the reality that for this to work, every fundamental building block has yet to be put into place. Things that aren’t going to be resolved by issuing decrees about jersey exchanges. In the larger picture, that’s just a minuscule detail.

And unless the league and the union can get on the same page in quick fashion, none of the minuscule stuff will matter. Because there won’t be an NFL season to implement it in the first place.

More from Yahoo Sports: