NFL lockout: Players likely to approve collective bargaining agreement ending shutdown on Monday

July 23, 2011

NFL player leaders are scheduled to meet Monday in Washington, where they are likely to recommend approval of the lockout-ending collective bargaining agreement already ratified by the league’s franchise owners, several people familiar with the deliberations said Saturday.

The lockout could officially end next Saturday with the opening of the free agent market and teams beginning training camps, those people said, cautioning that those plans were subject to change. The 10-year labor agreement first would have to be ratified by a majority of the nearly 2,000 NFL players.

But if free agency begins and training camps open Saturday, the preseason would be likely to be played as scheduled beginning Aug. 11, said those people familiar with the situation. The regular season is scheduled to begin Sept. 8.

The plans for Monday’s meeting of the players’ ruling executive committee were made amid significant progress Saturday between the league and players in working out the final details separating them. If the executive committee recommends approval of the labor deal Monday to all the players, the necessary ratification by all the players would be virtually certain, people within the sport said.

The NFL would be likely to allow players to report to teams’ training facilities Tuesday or Wednesday for voluntary workouts if the executive committee makes its ratification recommendation Monday, people close to the situation said. The league also could allow some players to begin signing conditional contracts under the terms of a resolution approved by the owners last week in Atlanta.

The owners voted, 31-0 with one abstention by the Oakland Raiders, to ratify the collective bargaining agreement at Thursday’s meeting. Some players reacted angrily Thursday night to the owners’ vote, saying all the terms of the labor deal were not done and the owners had ratified some provisions that had not been negotiated. But the tensions on the players’ side eased soon thereafter, and the two sides went back to work ironing out the final details.

Players have been locked out since March 12, and free agent signings and trades of players have been on hold during the sport’s shutdown. But the league and players had agreed to the major terms of a new labor deal more than a week ago. The agreement is to give the players just less than half the sport’s burgeoning revenues under a salary cap system.

The deal includes a rookie pay system designed to curb the amount of guaranteed money in rookies’ contracts. It contains player-safety provisions reducing the number of offseason workouts and hitting in practices during training camp and the season. It keeps the regular season at 16 games per team by shelving, at least for now, the 18-game season once proposed by the owners.

The players would re-form their union in conjunction with their final vote to approve the deal.

The players were interested in adding an opt-out clause that would give either side the ability to end the labor agreement after seven seasons. The collective bargaining agreement approved by the owners did not contain such an opt-out clause. It was not immediately clear how that issue would be resolved, and several people within the sport said they thought it was possible the players might relent on the request for an opt-out clause if the owners opposed it vehemently.

Owners on the league’s bargaining committee spoke by conference call Saturday.

Officials of the NFL Players Association worked at the organization’s offices in downtown Washington and remained in touch with player representatives by telephone and electronic communication.

When the owners voted Thursday to ratify the labor deal, they passed a resolution setting terms for an end to the lockout, on the condition that the executive committee first recommended ratification of the labor agreement to all the players. Under the owners’ resolution, on Saturday players would have been permitted to report to teams’ facilities for voluntary workouts and teams also would have been permitted to begin re-signing their own free agents and signing their rookies to conditional contracts. Also under the owners’ resolution, full free agency would have begun and training camps would have opened on Wednesday.

The players had a different formula. They wanted the owners to end the lockout once the players approved a settlement of their antitrust lawsuit against the owners and began the process of re-forming their union, which they dissolved in March. Free agency would have begun, training camps would have opened and the collective bargaining agreement would have been approved by the players after the union completed the process of re-forming.

The players’ side wants players to be able to hand in paper union cards to re-form the union. Because the league’s plan gives the players the ability to be in teams’ facilities before the players’ final vote to approve the collective bargaining agreement, it appeared a compromise plan could be worked out.

The deal would include a settlement of all litigation between the two sides, including the players’ antitrust lawsuit against the owners, a case by the players involving the sport’s television contracts and a claim by the players of improper collusion by teams.

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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