The ongoing negotiations between the NFL and NFL Players Association regarding pandemic protocols could result in an impasse, with the league implementing its preferred rules and the union challenging the rules via an expedited grievance. Or the talks could result in a compromise.
The NFLPA’s leverage in these discussions comes from the financial side of the equation. It’s the league, not the NFLPA, that currently is looking for an adjustment to the status quo, because the status quo significantly favors the players.
It’s a topic we’ve mentioned multiple times. The Collective Bargaining Agreement, ratified by the union after the pandemic began, contains no force majeure clause. More specifically, it has no provision that allows the NFL to reduce 2020 player pay in the event of canceled games or a significant revenue drop arising from, for example, a pandemic.
Among league and union personnel alike, it has become accepted that, if the NFL plays just one week of games, the players become automatically entitled to 100 percent of their pay. The only argument that would support not paying players their base salaries comes from the Standard Player Contract, which can be interpreted to mean that no obligation to pay salary arises until at least one game is played. In other words, if the entire season is scrapped, the obligation to pay salary to players becomes scrapped, too.
The league’s only protection in the CBA, as acknowledged in April by NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, appears at page 82: “If one or more weeks of any NFL season are cancelled or [All Revenue] for any League Year substantially decreases, in either case due to a terrorist or military action, natural disaster, or similar event, the parties shall engage in good faith negotiations to adjust the provisions of this Agreement with respect to the projection of [All Revenue] and the Salary Cap for the following League Year so that [All Revenue] for the following League Year is projected in a fair manner consistent with the changed revenue projection caused by such action.”
This provision means that the cancellation of games or a significant revenue drop due to the pandemic requires the league and the union to engage in “good faith negotiations” regarding the impact of the lost revenue on the 2021 cap. Of course, they do that anyway; every year, the cap is the product of NFL and NFLPA discussions on what it should be.
All of this means is that, as to the financial side of the current dialogue, the players have the power to cross their arms and say, “We have a deal in place that applies to this situation.” The current deal means that, unless there’s no season, the players get full pay and, come 2021, the two sides will figure out what the cap will be.
The simple answer is that the cap will drop significantly based on the money lost this year. But does anyone truly think teams want that to happen? They need to field competitive teams, and they won’t want to shed key players. The NFLPA has proposed smoothing the losses over the next nine years; that’s what the NFL should want, too.
And here’s the key: The union’s willingness to do anything other than what the current CBA calls for gives the union leverage to get what it wants when it comes to the safety procedures for pro football in a pandemic. Here’s hoping that the interplay between the safety side of the talks and the financial side will allow all issues to get resolved as soon as possible, so that management and labor can pivot arm in arm toward the far greater challenge, given the current state of the outbreak, to make the 2020 season work.