Goodbye, Spygate; hello, labor strike?
The NFL moved from a persistent, one-team cheating scandal to an entirely different set of potential problems that could last much longer and with more thunderous effects when the owners unanimously voted yesterday to vacate the final two years of their labor agreement with the players union.
While they still have two more seasons under current conditions, the 2010 season would not be ruled by a salary cap and the agreement with the players would expire after the 2011 draft.
As Charlie Batch, the Steelers' NFL Players Association representative, put it, "We're two years away from a possible fight."
Batch, assistant player representative Kendall Simmons and other players learned about the vote just before they took the practice field yesterday as the team resumed its spring drills.
"I think it's too early to tell, to speculate down the road what could happen," Batch said after practice. "I think the owners were prepared to strike if that's the case. That's why they're opting out right now, basically putting us on two years' notice."
The last NFL strike occurred in 1987, when players walked out two games into the season. One game was canceled, and the NFL then resumed play the following week with replacement players. As more veterans streamed across the picket line to play in those games, the union called a halt to the strike after three games, and it took five more years for a court-encouraged collective bargaining agreement. That CBA, with negotiated changes along the way, remains in effect today under the longest period of labor peace among the four major pro sports leagues in America.
Batch and Simmons believe it can continue that way as long as both sides realize they must open negotiations soon to extend the deal.
"What you don't want to happen is to wait until the 11th hour to try to negotiate something," Batch said. "Hopefully, now that you have time to do it, over a two-year period, let's hammer out something now."
But the owners took it into overtime in March 2006, extending the current deal on a vote of 30-2. This time, they voted, 32-0, to rescind two years of that extension because the owners claim they gave away too much to the players in that contract -- 59 percent of their revenues.
"It's one of those things they're all in it together," Simmons said of the owners. "The same way we are, we're going to stand our ground and that's what they're doing. It's going to be a tough fight, but I think it's honestly going to work out in the end. You just have to believe in what it is."
There would be ramifications for both sides if they go into the 2010 season without a new agreement and thus no salary cap. Owners could pay as much -- or as little -- in payrolls as they wanted. Also, if it reaches that point, players could not become unrestricted free agents until after their sixth year in the league. Currently, it's four years.
"I think everybody's trying to be optimistic about it," Simmons said. "Let that uncapped year be what it is, put it in the book and get [a new CBA] done before the year is over with, before we have issues like that."
The league has been trying to put the New England Patriots cheating scandal behind it for months, and now both sides have a much bigger off-field matter to tackle.
"To me, I don't think it does anything but bring negative attention to the league," Simmons said, "and, with the popularity of the sport right now, we don't really need that. We have too much stuff going on right now as it is."
Coach Mike Tomlin believes the two sides will come to an agreement before the deal expires.
"From my perspective, it seems like they're just probably bringing it to a head. I don't think anybody wants a work stoppage, owners or players, but I tend to focus on the 53 that I coach. I'll let them handle that."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published May 21, 2008 4:00 AM