NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith speaks as he and a group of player representatives arrive for labor talks at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images)
All signs point to no settlement between the National Football League and its players before the twice-extended collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires at midnight tonight. Does that mean no pro football in 2011? No. The real deadline is Sept. 8, the opening night of the NFL season. There’s still plenty of time for labor and management to figure out how to split $9 billion in annual revenue.
If talks break down today in Washington, D.C., the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), led by African-American attorney DeMaurice Smith, would have until 5 p.m. today to decertify. Players would give up their rights under labor law but could file antitrust suits against individual owners. For example, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees could sue Saints owner Tom Benson for denying his right to work.
It’s a sure bet the NFLPA suits would be filed before midnight because federal judge David Doty of Minnesota would decide the cases. Doty has emerged as a key player in this drama. Last week, he ruled the NFL violated the existing CBA when it negotiated deals with TV partners CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN that would have paid league owners $4 billion even if games weren’t played this year. If the owners had that $4 billion war chest, it’s not likely they would be talking to the NFLPA today. Owners could have already locked out the players and started counting the money. Because of Doty’s ruling, both sides would lose money if there’s no 2011 season.
The NFLPA believes it stands a better chance of winning in court than at the bargaining table. For the NFLPA, winning means a new CBA not much different from the current one: From the $9 billion pie, owners take $1 billion for operating expenses and players get about 60 percent of the remaining $8 billion. Owners say the economy is weaker now, so they want more than $1 billion off the top and want players to get less than 55 percent of what’s left. The NFLPA wants to see the owners’ full financial data before agreeing to that. Until one side blinks, the impasse continues.
If the current CBA expires, some important football issues won’t be addressed. Owners want to increase the regular season from 16 games to 18 and impose a cap on how much money rookies are paid. Also, the suicide last month of former NFL star Dave Duerson underscores the need for more money for retired players and to study head injuries. But for now, sports fans aren’t sweating the details. They’ll have three weeks of March Madness and a new baseball season to keep them occupied.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.