NFL players begrudgingly approve new union contract
In a Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020 file photo, Eric Winston, president of the NFL Players Association, speaks at the annual state of the NFLPA press conference, in Miami Beach, Fla. NFL players have approved a new labor agreement with the league that features a 17-game regular season, higher salaries, increased roster sizes and larger pensions for current and former players. | Chris Carlson/AP

Once upon a time, this reporter found himself sitting across the table from management during the second to last collective bargaining agreement negotiation session. Sliding across the table, neatly paperclipped together was a stack of 8.5 x 14-inch paper—it was management’s last, best, and final offer.

I looked up at the attorney sitting directly across from me, our eyes making unblinking eye contact before he casually said: “You know how I know this is a good union contract? Because neither side is happy with it.”

I’ve always found that logic flawed. The fact that neither side is ever completely happy with the outcomes of a final union contract is obvious, but for neither side to be happy can only mean there will be issues and complications arising throughout the entire length of the agreement.

And from a union member’s perspective, if the rank and file are split down the middle about the contract, you can rest assured unity and collective action will be hard to pull off at a later date and time.

By a razor-thin majority (1,019 yes—959no), with an estimated 500 union members not participating, the NFL Players Association approved a new CBA with the league.

The new contract which will run through the 2030 season, was approved by the 32 team owners last month. The NFLPA membership spent all of last week voting on the 439-page contract after the executive board narrowly rejected it by a 6-5 vote, and the player representatives voting 17-14 in favor, with one abstention.

This was not a pleasant vote. Right from the start of negotiations players expressed concerns that team owners would again be given an upper hand once the final deal was hammered out. And, player opposition to it was strong. NFL stars Aaron RodgersRussell WilsonJ.J. Watt, and Todd Gurley spoke out against the deal.

“Can’t believe we agreed to that lol,” tweeted Colts tight end Eric Ebron. “We can only play this game for so long and y’all didn’t want everything we could get out of it? … 2030 y’all do better.”

Marlon Humphrey, Ravens cornerback, expressed irritation with the contract votes low turnout.

“Around 500 players didn’t even vote on the new CBA …,” he tweeted. “It’s good and bad to this deal. I could see why anyone would vote either way. I just think it’s amazing guys don’t even care.”

Calls for unity came immediately after the final vote count and were on blast giving the amount of disapproval.

Russel Okung, offensive tackle for the Chargers, and NFLPA executive committee member, went as far as filing an unfair labor practice charge against the NFLPA.

His complaint details: “Both the NFLPA’s procedural violations of the [union] Constitution and substantive ways the proposed CBA compromises, ignore the rights of Players, many of whom have been asked to vote on the CBA without receiving full or accurate information about the proposal.”

“Players voted for a 17-game season,” said Jaguars receiver Chris Conley, expressing his objections on Instagram. “No extra bye week. A disproportionate pay increase that will be less than promised because of the growth of the leagues’ revenue. No resolved player restrictions or tags. Added mandatory fines for hold outs that take an accrued season from veteran players. On top of that this CBA cut benefits for some players in shaky medical condition. The worst part is that 500 people didn’t vote. We look like a weak union to the owners and for this reason they will continue to try to low ball and take advantage of players rights.”

Not surprisingly NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell praised the players’ approval of the deal.

“We are pleased that the players have voted to ratify the proposed new CBA, which will provide substantial benefits to all current and retired players, increase jobs, ensure continued progress on player safety, and give our fans more and better football,” Goodell said in a statement.

The new deal features a 17-game regular season, higher salaries, increased roster-sizes, and larger pensions for current and former players. The revenue split between the league and players did not go up to an even 50/50 split.

Among the other gains in the CBA:

—An increase from the 47% of league revenues given to the players, with that percentage dependent on the length of the season.

—A reduction of the preseason, initially from four games to three. More time off during training camps.

—Upgraded pensions, with the addition of groups of previous players not included in past agreements.

—Two more roster spots per team’s practice squad, with players having more freedom to move up to the regular roster and back. Two more will be added later in the agreement.

—Narrowing the testing period for players for marijuana use, plus lowered discipline for using it; and a reduction in on-field fines.

There has been no work on the timing or format changes to the draft, and a 17-game schedule season won’t happen before the 2021 season.

One of the biggest issues stemming from the new deal impacts injured players, and retirees facing debilitating health issues due to injury while active players, who saw cuts to disability benefits, and treatment options.

Responding to the criticism, NLFPA executive director DeMaurice Smith penned an open letter, saying:

“The current proposal contains increases across almost every category of wages, hours, working conditions and benefits for former and current players, like any contested negotiation … the proposal also reflects trades with the counterparty which have to be carefully weighed and assessed across the entirety of the deal. Please be confident that I hear — loudly and clearly — those of you who have passionately expressed their perspective that these gains are not enough when weighed against, for example, adding another game. That position reflects how some members have chosen to weigh what aspect of the deal is important to them.

“The fact is, however, that there are literally hundreds of issues in any collective bargaining agreement that affect thousands of circumstances and impact thousands of current and former players which we must consider carefully.”

With a new CBA in place, the NFL will now move to negotiate lucrative deals with broadcasting partners, with the intent of growing their slice of the revenue pie.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.