NFL Players Union Softens Rhetoric in Advance of Next CBA Meeting
"I'm looking forward to hopefully hearing the first proposal from the league tomorrow," Smith said Monday afternoon in a conference call. "I would like nothing more than to have a deal before we move into an uncapped year."
That quote contains two key pieces of this puzzle. First, Smith makes the point that he hasn't yet received a proposal from NFL owners that would indicate what they're looking to get out of the next collective bargaining agreement. Smith has made the point more than once that the owners are the ones who opted out of the last agreement, and that he would like for them to tell him what it is about the current economic system in the NFL that they don't like.
The second point has to do with the uncapped year. The current CBA runs through the 2010 season, which means there's no threat of a work stoppage this year or next. But if there is no new agreement by March, the 2010 season would be played without a salary cap. And while the league's owners have implemented numerous safeguards designed to protect competitive balance in an uncapped year and Goodell has said the owners are willing to play 2010 without a cap if need be, it's clear the union strongly opposes the idea.
"I think the idea of competitive balance, on the field and off the field, is a good one," Smith said. "It has made the game strong and has been very good for our players. It should be our common effort to ensure that that strength continues into the future."
Smith was intentionally (and frustratingly) non-specific in Monday's remarks, but it's not hard to figure out that the union's fear is not of the lack of a salary cap so much as the lack of a salary floor -- i.e., the idea that certain teams will pocket their revenue and not spend it on players once there are no rules about minimum payrolls. That fear is exacerbated by Smith's well-known belief that the owners are planning for a 2011 lockout and could actually turn a profit if they had one. (Goodell has disputed that notion, though Smith says he has evidence in the form of TV contracts that pay off even if there are no games.)
Tuesday's meeting is unlikely to yield much, since it seems obvious that the league and the union are on different timetables in terms of their desire to get a deal done. History is on the league's side, of course, as the NFL players' union has always caved in these disputes and has therefore been unable to secure even something as basic as an independent arbitrator for discipline grievances. But Smith is new, and he's an outsider -- a Washington lawyer with no background in football -- and his election to the post of executive director is a sign that there's some sentiment in the union that this may be a time to stand tough and fight together.
Smith has spent his summer and fall visiting all 32 teams and delivering speeches about the state of the negotiations and his belief that the owners plan to move toward a lockout. The union has advised players to save a portion of their salary in order to prepare for a lockout, and the union has raised dues in order to establish a fund that would help players through a league-imposed work stoppage. (The union has said many times it has no plans to strike, and that any work stoppage would be a lockout by the owners.)
"Our job is to do our best to protect our players and their families," Smith said. "I want to make sure these men have a real and sober understanding of what they are, not only as a player, but as a businessperson."
Tuesday in New York, Smith and the players hope to get some idea from the owners what their chances are of continuing to be both of those things in a 2011 season that looks to be in greater and greater jeopardy the slower the pace of these negotiations gets.
"People continue to have a love for our game," Smith said. "I still remain optimistic because I don't think anybody wants to be in the position of taking that game away from anyone."