Thursday, July 21, 2011

NFL Lockout

NFL owners were poised to approve a new labor deal with players Thursday, but a new, largely procedural set of issues emerged between the two sides that threatened to delay a resumption of league operations.
The league and players — who are in broad agreement on the major components of a new labor deal — are divided over how long it would take the players to re-form their union. Those differences produced contrasting ideas on how a new collective bargaining agreement should be ratified and when the sport should reopen for business.
The players’ representatives believe the two sides should settle the players’ antitrust lawsuit against the owners and that the league, at that point, should lift the lockout, allow free agency to begin and teams to report to their training camps. Both sides had been pointing to a timetable that would have players reporting to camps next week.
But the players say they would need up to two weeks to re-form their union, which they dissolved after the NFL owners locked them out in March, and only at that point could they and the league apply the finishing touches to a new labor accord, according to one person familiar with the players’ deliberations.
But according to that person and others familiar with the situation, the NFL has a far different view. League officials have said they will lift the lockout only when there is a signed and official collective bargaining agreement. In the league’s view, the players could re-unionize almost instantaneously and the settlement of the antitrust lawsuit, the re-formation of the union and the ratification of a new labor deal could come at once.
It was not immediately clear if a resolution of that disagreement would be worked out by the two sides and, if so, what the compromise would be.
The new complications arose even as it appeared the league and players were in fundamental agreement over the basic terms of a new labor deal, and were increasingly confident they could work out a settlement of the antitrust case as soon as Thursday.
The proposed collective bargaining agreement would be for 10 years and would give the players just less than half the sport’s revenue, about 46.5 to 48 percent, under a salary cap system. It would set the salary cap for the upcoming season at approximately $120 million per team for players’ salaries, not counting an additional $21 million per club for players’ benefits. It would require each team to spend 90 percent or more of the annual salary cap in cash, and it would include a rookie pay system to curb the amount of guaranteed money in rookies’ contracts.
The deal would keep the regular season at 16 games per team, shelving the 18-game season proposed by the league, and would reduce offseason workouts for players and limit hitting in some practices. It would restore the requirement for players with expired contracts to be eligible for unrestricted free agency to four seasons of NFL experience, down from the six seasons required last year in a season without a salary cap.
Owners said they were prepared to approve that deal during Thursday’s meeting at a hotel near the Atlanta airport.
“I expect the great majority to support the work the league has done,” Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said before the meeting began.
The new labor deal would have to be ratified by at least 24 of the 32 owners. There were tentative plans in place for the free agent market to open next week if the deal is approved by both sides this week.
“I think all the teams are ready to go to work,” Blank said. “I’m in favor of getting this deal done so it’s a win-win situation for ownership, for the players and most importantly for the fans.”
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said before the meeting: “We’re just optimistic and we’ll try to do our part today. There are a lot of moving parts but I think everything is moving in the right direction…. This isn’t about lawsuits. It’s about getting a 10-year agreement.”
The deal also would have to be ratified by a majority of the close to 2,000 NFL players.
When player representatives met Wednesday in downtown D.C., they authorized the players’ ruling executive committee and DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, to finish the collective bargaining agreement with the league.
According to the union, certain elements of the labor deal, including drug-testing issues and pension matters, can be completed only after the players re-form their union. So while the players’ side was leaving open the possibility of the lawsuit being settled as soon as Thursday and the players voting to re-form the union, it did not believe an immediate vote of the all the players to approve a new labor deal could be taken.
There were reports in recent days that the settlement of the lawsuit was being held up by the players’ side seeking the restoration of $320 million in lost benefits from the uncapped season, and asking for financial payments or free agency concessions for certain players who were among the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Nancy Cleeland, a spokeswoman for the National Labor Relations Board, wrote in an e-mail Thursday that “an employer can lawfully recognize a union once that union demonstrates that a majority of the employees in the unit want that union to represent them in collective bargaining matters.”
That can take place, Cleeland said, through a vote by the employees supervised by the NLRB. The NFL also could agree to recognize the union without an NLRB election “based on some showing of support, such as cards signed by a majority of players,” she said. “We would not have to be involved, just as we were not involved when the players decided they no longer wanted to be represented by the league.”
Cleeland also wrote: “As far as the amount of time it would take for this voluntary recognition agreement to take place, that is a matter between the parties. There is no minimal time period. The voluntary recognition process is outside the NLRB process and there are no deadlines or timelines.”