Lockout Looming: Too Many Issues

DeMaurice Smith (Scott Halleran/Getty)

Although the players and owners have spent a lot of time at the negotiating table the past two weeks, a number of key issues exist that will lead to a lockout in 2011. Brad Keller breaks down these issues.

Editor's note: this is the third in a multi-part series examining the issues the NFL and its players are facing as they negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here.

Federal mediator George Cohen recently stated that he believes the owners and players made a great deal of progress in the last round of mediated negotiations, but also stated that "very strong differences remain on the core issues" of the labor agreement.

The 18 Game Schedule: Roger Goodell and the owners basically railroaded the idea of an 18-game schedule through without much feedback or approval from the players. That's one part of the issue.

The other part is how the players will be compensated for more games. They're almost all currently under contract and those contracts are for 16-game seasons. Do they get two more game checks — players get a check each week for each game, not a lump sum at the beginning or end of the season — for the same amount as though they played two more games than in a 16-game season?

Or, will their weekly game check be based on their 16-game base salary, just divided by 18 instead of 16? Huge dollar amounts are at stake, so the answers to those questions are of considerable importance.

The one thing that hasn't been discussed as much as the other two points — and may be more important overall — is that two more games means 140-160 more collisions for players whose bodies already take a great deal of abuse. This doesn't affect the stars as much, since they're all elite players and take care of themselves and will have long, storied careers.

But stars are about five percent of the league, so this is an issue that has serious ramifications for 95 percent of the players in the NFL.

Football fans watch games week in and week out and watch highlights of big plays and bigger hits, but have a limited understanding what a violent game NFL football is. For example, I recently talked to a guy that played as a wide receiver for Pitt for four years, then as an undrafted free agent for a Falcons for four games. He also played in the AFL and the afl2 as a receiver.

He showed me his mangled left hand. He dislocated the pinky finger on his left hand six times and the ring finger on that hand four times. He's had two surgeries.

He saw his fair share of action in college and professional football, no doubt, but he was not a player that played in the NFL 16 (or 18) games a season for ten years. Wide receiver is also a position that is more protected and sees less contact than on the offensive line, defensive line, or running back.

Adding two games adds more collisions and more chances for guys to get seriously hurt, which in turn lowers the playing career of the average NFL player in terms of total seasons. When a former player tries to collect his pension or tries to get medical coverage, the first thing they look at his is NFL tenure.

Austin Collie had his season ended by two concussions in two months. With a longer season, it would have been possible for the Colts to perhaps keep from placing him on injured reserve and running further tests, which would have exposed him to the risk of a third concussion during the 2010 season. That third concussion could have ended his career, or worse, which is an important factor in terms of player safety.

Roger Goodell: The players have had their fair share of issues with Goodell since he was installed and a number of them have spoken out against his policies and decisions. The problem is that the owners think very highly of him and they have several good reasons.

The fact that the players don't like Goodell isn't much of a news flash. He's handed out arbitrary, inconsistent punishments and fines for different infractions, on the field or off. He pushed the 18 game schedule through without much in the way of feedback from the players. This season, there were issues surrounding fines for — and in-game enforcement of — helmet-to-helmet hits.

All this would be less of a problem if the owners didn't think Goodell — in their eyes — was doing such a good job.

Goodell has kept the players in line and let them know that they will be punished to the full extent of the law. He has made broad, sweeping decisions on the present and future of the league and has acted decisively, which the owners can't do for themselves, especially when broad, sweeping decisions work out to their best benefit.

Most importantly, he's done what Paul Tagliabue couldn't: He's created a wealth of new revenue streams on television, multimedia, marketing, and the Internet.

The owners are very interested in squeezing every last dollar out of the NFL product outside of game day, since the season lasts only five months. Goodell has grown a number of those revenue streams and even created a few new ones.

When Goodell took over, NFL.com was a static site with a weak community, little or no video and interactive content, and a poor fantasy football presence. The site is now dynamic, interactive, has a strong community, tons of fantasy football content and league tools, and has forced other sites that carry NFL content to step up their technology efforts.

When Goodell took over, the NFL Network was struggling to get its sea legs and looked like it might fold. It's not a juggernaut like ESPN, but it has shown vast improvement and is more viewed and well-received than other league-centric channels such as MLB TV or NHL TV.

As with most things, it's doubtful that either side will budge.

The Rookie Salary Pool: This is a big item with owners and veteran players and it introduces one other party with something at stake: The agents. Agents don't have the power in the NFL that they have in other professional sports — they have basically no power at all and Drew Rosenhaus seems to have disappeared from the league — but they do talk to the players and they do have a good deal of influence over them.

The owners and players mostly agree with regard to a rookie salary pool/cap, where each team is allotted a certain amount for rookie salaries and players are slotted and paid according to their draft position. But, the assumption is that the players — especially the veterans — want stricter controls and limits on rookie salaries than the owners do.

Veteran players don't the idea of players in their early 20s coming into the league making several times what they do, never having played a down of NFL football in their lives. Tommy Maddox protested in 2004 that he was the starter, but the lowest paid quarterback on the roster by a wide margin, when the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger. There are numerous other examples.

Owners need to have an eye towards the future and realize that, if the restrictions are too severe, they'll lose out on juniors that declare early for the draft. Juniors declaring early are usually taken in the first two rounds. If they don't see a huge upside in coming to the NFL a year early, many will stay in school and play there, which sets the cycle of incoming talent back a year.

Players most likely realize this as well, so they have even more incentive to make the rookie salary cap as unattractive as possible. The Less Young talent coming in, the better the chance that they'll keep their jobs.

The agents don't have great relationships with the owners, but they have a vested interest in making sure that the hundreds of new clients they sign every year get the best deal. They will work on the veterans, but this is definitely an issue that will require serious discussion and compromise to resolve.


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