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NFL labor talks could include 18-game season, more playoff teams, new marijuana policy

Roger Goodell speaks to reporters at last week's NFL owners' meeting in Florida. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

As representatives of the league and the players’ union prepare to intensify negotiations on a new labor deal, some NFL owners favor revisiting the possibility of an 18-game regular season or an expanded playoff field. Many owners also seem willing to make concessions to the union on the commissioner’s disciplinary authority and the sport’s marijuana policy.

The views of owners toward the negotiations were described by several owners, high-ranking team officials and others familiar with the league’s inner workings at the owners’ meeting last week in Key Biscayne, Fla. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide frank characterizations of the owners’ approach to bargaining with the NFL Players Association, at a sensitive time when the deliberations could become more serious.

A high-ranking official with one NFL team said there are “some owners who would like to expand the season” to 18 games, adding it’s not clear “if there is much support from the players on that.” That official also said: “The commissioner discipline and marijuana policy will come up at some point, and I suspect the owners will be a little more flexible on both subjects.”

The current collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFLPA expires following the 2020 season, and union leaders have warned players and their agents to be prepared for a potential work stoppage. Owners locked out players before the two sides struck a 10-year labor agreement in 2011.

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But the league and union recently have become more cooperative after years of combativeness. The NFL and NFLPA announced last week they were forming a joint committee that will study the prospective use of marijuana by players as a pain-management tool. That has sparked hopes that a new labor deal could be struck and a work stoppage avoided.

“I do hope it’s sooner rather than later,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the conclusion of last week’s owners’ meeting. “I think there’s great value to all parties, and most importantly our fans, that we get this issue resolved and move forward. But there are important issues to be addressed. And we’re doing that.”

Goodell said then that there had been two formal bargaining sessions. According to others familiar with the situation, most of the work has been done by staffers, and any increase in the direct involvement by owners and players in the negotiating sessions between now and year’s end perhaps could signal that an agreement is within reach.

The central issue of the bargaining, as always, will be the league and union agreeing to a division of the sport’s revenue, now estimated to be about $15 billion per year and growing, under the salary cap system. But with both sides thriving economically — the salary cap has increased by at least $10 million for six straight years and is up 40 percent since 2014, to $188.2 million per team for the 2019 season — it seems increasingly unlikely that the core economic issues will present major negotiating obstacles.

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On other issues, there could be a series of trade-offs.

During the last set of labor negotiations, owners proposed lengthening the regular season from 16 to 18 games per team. The union objected vehemently on the grounds of player safety. The league abandoned the proposal and said that, while it remained interested in such an arrangement, it would never lengthen the regular season without the players’ approval.

Some owners want to revisit that topic during these negotiations, several people familiar with the views of those owners said last week. It was not clear how many owners want an 18-game season or how hard they would push on the issue if the players remain opposed. But those owners believe the additional regular season games would generate a significant revenue boost and perhaps could be made more palatable to the players by offering a reduction in preseason games, an increase in roster sizes and other concessions.

A potential revenue-boosting alternative to the 18-game season, to some owners, would be increasing the NFL’s playoff field from 12 to 14 teams. Seven teams in each conference would qualify for the postseason instead of six. There would be one team in each conference given a first-round playoff bye instead of two. So there would be six opening-round postseason games instead of four.

The owners appeared on the verge of implementing the expanded playoffs for the 2015 season. But it was set aside for possible consideration in these CBA negotiations and in the deliberations over the next TV contracts. Some owners might have concerns about allowing 14 of the 32 teams into the playoffs, but the NFLPA might find the expanded playoffs preferable to a longer regular season.

“If you really want to boost the revenue, I’d say you might need one or the other,” one person familiar with the views of the owners said last week, referring to an 18-game season or expanded playoffs.

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That person and others said that many owners would have little problem making concessions to the union when it comes to Goodell’s authority in player discipline. Those on the players’ side regularly have objected to Goodell being empowered to both make disciplinary rulings and resolve appeals of those rulings, and the NFLPA went to federal court in disciplinary cases involving New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. Initial courtroom victories by the union in those cases were overturned on appeal, reinforcing Goodell’s authority.

Some within the league say Goodell is open to having the commissioner’s authority reduced in cases of off-field misbehavior by players but is adamant that the commissioner’s disciplinary authority should not be curbed in matters that affect the integrity of the game, such as the Deflategate case that led to Brady’s four-game suspension.

The league already has opened the possibility, through the formation of the pain management committee, of allowing players to use marijuana for pain. But some owners would be receptive to further changes in the marijuana policy, according to those with knowledge of the league’s inner workings. It’s possible those changes could come within the context of the CBA negotiations, although the league and union also make frequent modifications to their jointly administered drug policies outside the framework of CBA talks.

The likelihood of another labor confrontation in 2021 will be determined when the sides begin tackling the central issues in the negotiations, perhaps in the coming months. In the meantime, union leaders such as DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director, and Eric Winston, the union’s president, have told players to be prepared financially for the possibility of being locked out again.

“They have to know what they’re up against,” Winston said during Super Bowl week. “They have to know what’s coming. They have to understand, just like in a game, the tactics that are going to be used against them and have to fight against it. … I will say I think every player is going to believe us when we say you’re going to get locked out.”