The NFL's new CBA is a risky proposition for play
This is my surprise last article ever for the Justice. It’s been a pleasure to serve as your annoying columnist for the past four years. After all, everything else isn’t exactly hunky-dory in all walks of American life right now, and our usual refuge of sports is unfortunately no different. The NBA is suspended, March Madness is canceled, the MLB delayed and the NFL is in no man's land. But that doesn’t mean we’re wholly bereft of sports content.
By this Saturday, the members of the National Football League Players Association will decide whether they will agree to a new collective bargaining agreement, which if adopted would remain in place until 2031. Over 2,000 players are voting on the deal under a “one member, one vote” system, meaning that hundreds of anonymous backups and roleplayers have just as much of a say as superstars like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.
If this agreement is approved, it would be the most radical change to the fabric of the NFL since the league expanded to a 16-game season in 1977. In exchange for adding a 17th game to the schedule and a longer playoff format, a new revenue-sharing scheme will give a boost to most players’ paychecks and make life easier for backup players whose roster spots are always at risk.
Currently, players receive 47% of league revenue. Under this new Collective Bargaining Agreement, that number would jump to 48% right away in 2021 and is posed to increase to anywhere from 48.5% to 48.8% if the NFL gets an expected revenue boost from a bevy of new TV deals with their current broadcasting partners. Although a jump of 1.8% may not sound like a lot, keep in mind that that little percentage is coming out of the staggering amount of money the league brings in each year. According to the Chicago Tribune, the NFL’s total profit was $15 billion dollars in 2018; the league expects that number to be $25 billion by 2027. At the start of the 2021 off-season, an extra $15 million would be available for player salaries, the vast majority of which would be added to the salaries of those players making the roster minimum of $480,000. Under the new CBA, that minimum salary would likely start closer to $600,000. If all goes to plan for the NFL’s profit projections, which would hit the aforementioned 1.8% kicker, the NFL’s salary pool would be a full $450 million larger by 2027.
Additionally, any salary currently graded for a 16-game season will be adjusted to compensate players for the extra game played. All players on the roster for that 17th game will make an extra 1/17 of their 16-game salary. This new CBA also limits the number of off-season practices players can be forced to participate in and does away with suspensions for marijuana use. However, it does little to address concerns about how the NFL treats retired players, many of whom continue to struggle financially.
None of these changes do much to help the NFL’s stars, whose maxed-out salaries will be completely unaffected by these new payment schemes. Instead, they will be asked to put their body on the line at least one extra time — if not twice, as many of these players are on the elite teams who will assuredly be featured in an additional playoff game — for no real gain outside a small boost to postseason pay.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has served as the most prominent face of the “no” campaign. In an interview with ESPN Wisconsin's Jason Wilde and Mark Tauscher, Rodgers lamented the lack of thought many in the league were giving to the details of this new agreement, declaring that “unfortunately— or fortunately, however you look at it— for the people wanting to push this deal through so badly, that's kind of a win because nobody's critically looking at this or thinking about it. They're just like, 'Oh, what's my salary going to be? Oh, OK, cool.' Not like, 'Are we taking care of former players? What kind of additional player risks are we taking on? What are we getting in return for that?'”
Rodgers’ basic argument is that the addition of a 17th game and playoff expansion were never options on the table when players wanted to negotiate, and that they put players at risk for no real reason. Combine that with the lack of attention being paid to retired players, and you can see why a player who stands to benefit little from the salary changes like Rodgers would be frustrated.
Other star players seem to be on the same page. San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman boosted Rodgers’ message and added on his Twitter that the “Health and Wellness of our men is always the most important aspect. There is no price you can put on that and that is why I voted No. I respect the men that have been part of this discussion and stood up for their locker rooms.” Sherman’s former teammate, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, has also been vocally opposed, disparagingly comparing the NFL’s treatment of its players to the MLB’s and NBA’s and opining that “WE should not rush the next 10 YEARS for Today’s satisfaction. I VOTE NO.”
Additionally, longstanding concerns over disability benefits and betting regulation aren’t addressed by this new CBA, and some players have made their displeasure known. Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid took a different route in announcing his opposition, choosing to instead highlight what he saw as these moral failings of the new CBA. According to Reid, “This proposal asks us to give in on moral issues, like protecting disabled players and give in on economic issues, like gambling exclusions, and then lock those concessions in for longer than any deal in history. VOTE NO!” Reid is a role player not quite in the same class as the likes of Sherman or Wilson, but his ethical concerns cannot be ignored. However, his sentiments are hardly universal.
Those players in favor of this deal do not have thousands of Twitter followers to whom they can broadcast their thoughts and feelings, and have no sports news outlets ready and waiting for their quotes. Many of them are willing to chance that 17th game if it means getting another opportunity to play and a huge material gain for themselves and their families.
The average NFL career lasts about 3.3 years, a dangerously short tenure for a profession that takes a tremendous toll on one’s mind and body and comes with no real exit strategy. An extra $100,000 every year during that 3.3 year span might make the difference between financial independence and bankruptcy for some of these players.
Like all labor negotiations, this deal is hardly perfect, bringing along a bevy of benefits to soften the sting of one massive problem. For all the spirited public opposition from stars, this deal might pass, powered by votes from their largely anonymous teammates who fill the NFL’s benches and practice squads. We’re saying goodbye to a lot during this period of quarantine and distancing – who knew the 16-game NFL season would be one of them?