With the usually amicable working relationship between the NFL and its players' union being tested by a problematic set of labor negotiations, NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw says the deliberations are at a standstill and that he is telling players to ready for a season without a salary cap in 2007, the final year of the current collective bargaining agreement.
"We have some owners who want to have their cake and eat it, too," Upshaw said. "They have huge revenues, all these new stadiums and they don't pay the players what they should, and they get subsidies from everyone else. . . . I've been to 32 teams and finished the last one last week in Denver, and all the players understand where we are. They're saying, 'Bring on the uncapped year.' "
The formula that the NFL has used to become the nation's most popular and prosperous professional sports league has included long-standing labor peace. Since the players' strike in 1987, the sport's labor negotiations usually have gone smoothly. But Upshaw warned from the outset that the current negotiations would be difficult, and the union's rhetoric surrounding the deliberations is becoming increasingly combative.
Upshaw has been seeking an overhaul of the salary cap system, attempting to funnel more of the league's burgeoning revenues to the players.
"I think both sides better get prepared where there is no deal," Upshaw said in an interview this week. "I told our staff Monday that's what we have to communicate to the players -- what direction we're going -- and right now it looks like an uncapped year. We can't accept what they have on the table."
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue told reporters yesterday in Kansas City, Mo., as a two-day owners' meeting concluded, that the league and the union are far apart. A spokesman said the league would not respond to Upshaw's comments beyond that.
Tagliabue once had aimed to have a deal with the players in place by earlier this fall. There were hopes that an agreement might be imminent when Tagliabue appointed two owners viewed as moderates -- Pat Bowlen of the Denver Broncos and Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers -- to the league's bargaining committee, but that move has failed to spur the negotiations.
The negotiations are taking place at the same time that Tagliabue is trying to get the owners to agree to a new system for the teams to share their revenues with each other. The clubs share their national television revenues evenly, but the growing disparity in unshared locally generated revenues has led to calls for the league's wealthiest franchises to transfer more money to less prosperous teams.
Some owners have said it would be possible for the league to agree to a labor deal with the players that is separate from a new revenue-sharing accord. People involved in the labor negotiations have said that when union officials bring up the topic of the teams' revenue-sharing during bargaining sessions, the league's representatives say that it is an internal matter for the owners. But, those participants in the labor talks say, both sides know that it would be virtually impossible for the owners to generate enough votes among the less well-off teams to get a new labor deal approved if a revenue-sharing agreement to help those clubs isn't completed at the same time.
The league's coffers are full. The NFL's new TV contracts with Fox, CBS, ESPN, NBC and DirecTV will pay the league about $4 billion per season beginning next year, up from the approximately $2.8 billion it is earning this season.
This season's salary cap is $85.5 million per team, but player benefits and cap rules mean that most teams spend much more on player costs. The current salary cap system guarantees the players 65.5 percent of designated league revenues this season and 64.5 percent next season.
Upshaw wants to expand the pool of revenues from which the players are paid, calling the new pool "total football revenues." The owners have agreed to do that, but the two sides have been unable to agree on what percentage of that expanded revenue pool should go to the players. Upshaw said the owners have offered to set the cap at 57 percent of total football revenues but that, he said, would not represent a raise for the players.
"They've taken the concept of designated gross revenue and changed it to total football revenue and basically come up with the same amount they're paying the players now," Upshaw said. "They have not made a proposal to us since we started this whole process. All they say is, 'We reject whatever you want.' Then they say what we want is too much. . . . Once we get to March 2006, when the league calendar starts, as far as we're concerned there's no need to make a deal. If that's what they want, we'll go there too."
Even knowledgeable observers differ on how ominous the tough talk surrounding the negotiations is. Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, a leading authority on the business of sports, said yesterday that the owners are facing "real issues" but he expects a settlement at some point.
"I think at the end of the day, the two sides are very reluctant to push this to the brink or over the brink," Zimbalist said. "It just makes no sense. But until you get to the brink, there is going to be jockeying and posturing."
Chicago-based sports consultant Marc Ganis said he attended the owners meeting this week and found "real pessimism" among the owners regarding the labor talks.
"They are girding for the uncapped year," Ganis said. "They're planning for it. It's getting to the point where the two sides are so entrenched that getting a deal will be very difficult."
Ganis said many owners are convinced that a season without a salary cap would not be the windfall for players' salaries that the union might envision. In an uncapped season, players would need six seasons of NFL experience instead of the usual four to be eligible for unrestricted free agency, and there no longer would be a minimum player payroll for teams.
"I suspect you would see a handful of clubs that can pay more and would pay more," Ganis said. "But you would also see a lot of clubs not spending $100 million, like they now do."