NFL owners appear ready to make a deal that ends the lockout


NFL owners outlined parameters they feel could eventually lead to a deal with locked out players by July. “You’re . . . saying ‘why get a deal on Oct. 1 or whenever that you could have had July 7?” Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said. (Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)
June 21, 2011

NFL owners emerged Tuesday after a day-long review of the broad concepts of a possible labor agreement with locked-out players ready to intensify talks with the goal of reaching an accord by early next month.

Despite reported owner concerns, opposition to the plan hammered out in closed-door deliberations over the past few weeks apparently was modest and confined to certain aspects of the complex deal.

The agreement would contain a salary-cap system that would give players slightly less than half the sport’s burgeoning revenues, according to people familiar with the deliberations. The players have received slightly more than half the sport’s revenues in the past.

But, according to one person familiar with the situation, players likely would accept slightly less than half in the future because overall revenue is expected to rise sharply and total compensation would increase rapidly, even if players accepted a smaller percentage of the gross revenue.

It also is likely to include free agency for players after four years and a requirement that each team spends at least 90 percent of the salary cap, up from the previous minimum of slightly more than 85 percent.

Negotiations between owners and locked out players are scheduled to resume Wednesday in the Boston area and the two sides likely will make a push to complete an agreement sometime around July 4, said people familiar with the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the deliberations.

“I think the ownership has a better understanding of the framework and I think we have a better understanding of the various issues and priorities within the membership,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said after the owners ended their meeting at a hotel near O’Hare Airport.

Any agreement would have to be approved by at least 24 of the 32 owners. A deal probably would be accompanied by the players reconstituting their union, and would require approval by the federal court in which the players filed their antitrust lawsuit against the owners.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do and we’ve got to do it right,” Goodell said. “The agreement that we’re focusing on and negotiating has got to address several issues. Those issues are complex and it needs to be done in a way that is fair to the players, fair to the clubs and most importantly, allows us to continue to have that full 2011 football season.”

Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the dissolved players’ union, have participated in a series of negotiating sessions over the past three weeks, along with small groups of owners and players.

Players have been locked out by the owners since March 12, the day after they dissolved their union and filed an antitrust lawsuit against the owners.

It appeared Tuesday that only a handful of owners had serious objections to the broad terms of the deal, according to people familiar with the owners’ deliberations. Some owners apparently want the agreement to provide protection for the teams in case of an economic downturn. Some also appear to believe that the league should take advantage of recent courtroom victories to negotiate a more favorable pact.

But other owners are pressing for a deal on the terms currently under negotiation.

“I think that’s the hope,” Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said before Tuesday’s meeting. “I think really that’s the logical thing. You’re pushing on both sides and saying ‘why get a deal on Oct. 1 or whenever that you could have had July 7?’

“ . . . But these things are tough. They’re fragile. You’ve just got to keep working at it.”

A significant number of executives involved in their teams’ football operations also attended Tuesday’s meeting. Their attendance at Tuesday’s meeting could signal that the discussions included consideration of how the NFL will resume operations after a deal is struck. Free agency and trades of players have been on hold during the lockout.

Irsay said last month that he thought a deal would have to be reached by July 4 to allow for a sufficient free agent signing period before a full training camp, preseason and regular season. The season is scheduled to begin Sept. 8.

Some people familiar with the talks have cautioned that the negotiations still could unravel and, due to the complexity of the issues, an accord might be unlikely before mid-July.

Potentially, players with expired contracts would be eligible for unrestricted free agency after four NFL seasons. That was the sport’s previous requirement before it was raised to six seasons last offseason in a year played without a salary cap. Teams again would be able to limit players’ free-agent mobility by using franchise-player tags.

According to a report by ESPN, owners were told Tuesday that players would receive about 48 percent of all revenues under the terms of a potential settlement, a share that never would drop below 46.5 percent.

A deal between the league and the players also is likely to include a new rookie compensation system, but not the 18-game season originally demanded by the league. The league also has offered a reduction in offseason workouts and has proposed blood-testing players for abuse of human growth hormone. The NFL also is seeking to get out from under ongoing court oversight of its labor situation.

The recent negotiations between the league and players have come as the two sides await a ruling by a federal appeals court on whether it will allow the lockout to continue.

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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