With players expected to ratify deal, NFL re-sets timetable

July 25, 2011

With NFL players expected to begin ratifying a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement Monday, the league has a tentative plan to reopen for business with some player signings by Tuesday and some teams beginning training camps Wednesday.

Representatives of the league and locked-out players worked until early Monday morning and had all but completed the final details of their labor agreement that would end the nearly 41 / 2-month lockout.

According to several people familiar with the discussions, the deal was basically done. A bit of work remained to be put down on paper, those people said, but that was expected to be done in time for the written document to be reviewed by members of the players’ ruling executive committee during a meeting Monday in D.C.

The executive committee likely will recommend approval of the deal to the entire group of NFL players, people within the sport said. For the lockout officially to be lifted, the collective bargaining agreement must be ratified by a majority of the close to 2,000 NFL players. Once the executive committee endorses the deal, the approval of the larger group of players is a virtual certainty, people within the sport said.

The tentative schedule in place Monday morning had teams being able to sign their drafted rookies and undrafted rookies by Tuesday,perhaps even later Monday. Teams also could begin talking to veteran free agents by Tuesday, and potentially could sign players to conditional contracts that would not be in effect until the official end of the lockout.

Ten NFL teams would open their training camps Wednesday. Another 10 would open camps Thursday, then 10 more Friday and the remaining two Sunday. The preseason would begin Aug. 11. The regular season is scheduled to begin Sept. 8.

The owners voted, 31-0 with one abstention by the Oakland Raiders, Thursday in Atlanta to approve the collective bargaining agreement.

Players have been locked out since March 12. They dissolved their union in March, the day before the lockout began, and filed an antitrust lawsuit against the owners. Players would re-form their union in conjunction with full ratification of the labor deal.

The deal settles the players’ antitrust lawsuit against the owners and other litigation, including a case by the players involving the league’s television contracts and a claim by players accusing teams of improper collusion.

It is not immediately clear whether the two sides agreed to an opt-out clause that would enable either party to choose to end the agreement early. The owners ratified a 10-year deal without any opt-out provision.

The league and players had been in agreement on the major economic issues of their dispute since July 15. But they had to work out a series of finishing details since then, including differing views of the process by which the players would re-form their union.

The deal includes a salary cap system by which players will receive an average of at least 47 percent of the sport’s revenues, now about $9.3 billion annually and expected to rise sharply in future seasons, over the 10-year duration of the agreement. The salary cap is to be set at $120.4 million per team for the upcoming season, not counting $22 million per club in player benefits. There is a salary cap exception by which a team may borrow up to $3 million in cap space from a future season to sign players this season. There are new payroll minimums requiring the teams to collectively spend 99 percent of the salary cap in cash over the next two seasons, and 95 percent in subsequent seasons.

The requirement for a player with an expired contract to be eligible for unrestricted free agency is restored to four seasons of NFL experience, down from the six seasons required last year in a season without a salary cap. Teams can continue to use franchise-player tags and transition-player designations to restrict some players’ free agent mobility. A new rookie pay system curbs the amount of guaranteed money in rookies’ contracts and stipulates contract lengths. Rookies selected in the NFL draft are to sign four-year contracts, with fifth-season options for first-round draft choices. Undrafted rookies are to sign three-year deals.

The new collective bargaining agreement keeps the regular season at 16 games per team. The players had opposed the league’s previous proposal to increase the season to 18 games per club. The deal stipulates the players must agree to any future switch to a longer season. The agreement includes cutbacks in offseason workouts and reductions in hitting in practices during training camp and the season.

The deal ends federal court oversight of the sport’s labor situation and includes a $620 million “legacy fund” for retired players over the 10-year duration of the agreement. Some provisions cannot be negotiated until players re-form their union. That includes drug-testing issues. So while people within the sport have said they expect players to be blood-tested for human growth hormone, that provision is not yet included in the agreement.

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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