In the end, the silent majority won out. Narrowly. But as NFL players voted 1,019 to 959 to approve the proposed collective bargaining agreement, they ensured immediate victories for themselves and players of the past — and wins for the NFL and its fans.
In the weeks and days leading up to the voting deadline, a number of high-profile NFL players adamantly spoke out against the proposed deal. They believed it didn’t include enough concessions on the parts of the owners. They believed that their union could do better by rejecting this deal and resuming negotiations.
Although the opinions of stars like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Russell Okung and J.J. Watt carried weight as many of their colleagues followed their lead, a slightly larger — and far less vocal — group of players viewed the deal differently.
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General view of the NFL logo. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
Now the nation's most prominent professional sports league will enjoy another 11 years of uninterrupted labor peace.
As the outcome of the vote indicates, this wasn’t a slam dunk. This wasn’t a no-brainer for a lot of players.
The new CBA isn’t at all perfect. That’s because perfect labor deals don’t exist. This deal does, however, feature a lot of good, and it means that the players take another step toward equal footing with their employers. They’re not there yet, but this represents significant progress because it should pave the way for more long-term growth for the players 10 years from now when the sides return to the bargaining tables.
Newly-elected NFLPA president and Cleveland Browns center J.C. Tretter said in a statement released Sunday morning, "Our members have spoken and the CBA has been ratified. We pick up a greater share of revenues, make significant gains to minimum salaries and increase our post-career benefits. For players past, this deal reaches back in an unprecedented way to increase pensions, benefits and make resources available to them.
“We understand that not all deals are perfect, and we don’t take the gains we wanted, but couldn’t get, lightly,” he continued. “We now must unite and move forward as a union. The interest and passion on the issues that our members have voiced in the past several weeks needs to continue. Our job is never done and we all must work together as one team to build a better future.”
In short, the new CBA means:
► The players’ share of the revenue pie increases from 47% to 48% in 2021, and eventually to as much as 48.8% depending on TV revenues. That means roughly $5 billion more goes into the player pockets over the life of this deal.
► The minimum salary deals — which are earned by roughly 60% of NFL players automatically will increase by $100,000.
► Rookie contracts that featured a fifth-year option now will feature five guaranteed years at signing.
► Roster sizes and practice squad sizes will expand.
► Players will now be paid over a 34-week setup, and 36 weeks once the 17-game season is implemented.
► Suspensions for positive marijuana tests will now be eliminated.
► Offseason, training camp and regular season practice structures will feature more restrictions for teams, further limiting the number of padded practices, and instituting more rest days.
► Nearly $2 billion additional funds will go to retired player pension funds, and to improve healthcare benefits.
It’s impossible to look at the breakdown of the financial benefits without seeing how the deal improves the lives of the rank and file and retired players.
Even some of the most vocal critics conceded that the new deal featured a number of positives. However, one of the biggest fears was that the players might be settling. They wondered if holding out further and insisting on renewed negotiations could lead to an even better deal.
They also looked at concessions like the elimination of marijuana suspensions and modified training camp schedules as minor. Players also didn’t gain greater flexibility when it came to renegotiating rookie contracts at an earlier point, as some had hoped.
Although they understood that a revenue-sharing jump from 47% to 48.5% was positive, they believed that they should push for a 50-50 split like other pro leagues.
Some believed that the 17th game along with expanded playoff format contradicted the league-wide stance on the need for improved player safety.
All of those points were valid, their proposal-approving counterparts agreed. However, the unknown presented a far greater risk in their minds.
The owners never were going to agree to a new deal that didn’t include an expanded regular season. They made that abundantly clear. So, hopes for a jump in player earnings without a 17th game were unrealistic.
The owners had a sense of urgency because a new labor deal gave them greater leverage as they negotiate new broadcast dealsHowever, a negative player vote and break off in talks would have killed that leverage. The owners had said they didn’t plan to negotiate during the 2020 season, so a delay in talks until the 2021 offseason would have put the league and players at risk for a work stoppage. Some amongst the player leadership ranks also worried that the owners could backpedal on some of their concessions, weakening the CBA.
A number of owners still weren’t happy about having lowered their ask of an 18-game regular season to 17 games, two people with knowledge of the situation confirmed to USA TODAY Sports, and had talks broken off, they wanted to revisit that matter in future negotiations. The people requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the discussions.
At one point last week during the discussions at the NFLPA meeting in Miami, the two player sides seemed divided down the middle. Talks were described as "intense, but productive," a person with knowledge of the discussions told USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject matter. From there, the 32 player reps went back to their teammates to ensure they understood the deal. About 500 players did not vote on the deal.
Now, as many players have said publicly, they must unite and continue to make their voices heard as they fight for improved conditions and benefits in the future.
It’s on the owners to work to continue to grow that revenue pie. As the regular season and playoff formats expand and as legalized gambling eventually makes the league more profitable, that should happen.
Then, when the next CBA talks take place, the strides of this deal should serve as a springboard to place the next generations on even stronger financial footing.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.
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