WASHINGTON — Call it posturing at your own risk: the NFL Players’ Association is ready to fight for what they want when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2021.
Executive Director DeMaurice Smith promised as much in a video interview with Albert Breer on SI.com.
“I think that the likelihood of either a strike or a lockout in 2021 is almost a virtual certainty,” Smith told Breer.
The last work stoppage happened during the pre-2011 offseason. The lockout began at the start of the league year, delaying the start of free agency. The NFL Draft was conducted as scheduled, and rookies were welcomed into teams, and then promptly banished from team facilities.
Some teams had player-led workouts organized, while many players simply waited for a labor deal to be resolved. On the eve of training camp, a 10-year deal was struck that included no opt-out clauses on either side, guaranteeing labor peace for 10 years.
That was six years ago, with significant momentum heading for a showdown on the new deal. If anything, the labor peace has just allowed greater grievances to pile up behind the scenes.
“Let’s look at our history,” Smith explained. “The owners do a deal in 2006 and opt out in 2008. We do a deal in 2011 with no opt outs because we like the benefits under the current deal and we didn’t want to give the owners a chance to opt out and take back the gains that we currently have.
“We have a new deal where if it doesn’t get fixed you head into a certain small-A armageddon.”
The NFL, already the king among American professional sports, has prospered significantly in the time since the current CBA was struck. League revenue now exceeds $10 billion per year, player contracts are bigger than ever, and social media has provided a whole new opportunity for the league to be relevant throughout the year.
But the storm clouds are brewing, and it isn’t just over percentages of revenue.
The NFLPA has already cited the league’s inconsistent handling of player discipline as a major area of concern. Most recently, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott got six games for an alleged domestic violence case that never brought about charges or a day in court.
In 2014, Ravens running back Ray Rice was originally given a two-game suspension for domestic violence, until a video of him assaulting his then-fiancee in an elevator was released to the public. Riding the wave of public outrage, Rice’s suspension was switched to indefinite and he was not reinstated until he successfully sued the NFL in court.
Other topics of grievance are likely to be BountyGate, DeflateGate, and any other controversy that has ‘Gate’ tacked onto the end.
Another point of contention for players is testing for recreational drugs. Browns receiver Josh Gordon was one of the best receivers in the game in 2014, when he was banished for one year after violating the policy for recreational marijuana. He has failed multiple tests since then and has yet to be reinstated.
That amounts to a three years-and-counting suspension for smoking marijuana.
How CBA negotiations turn out will have a lot to do with which side has leverage. Players will need to save money in order to make the threat of not receiving game checks realistic. Oowners will need to be willing to use replacement players, as they did during the 1987 lockout, in order to neutralize that threat.
A lot can still happen in four years, but there is reason to believe that maintaining labor peace will not be easy.