Owners suggested lengthening the season by two games, but capping players’ participation to only 16 of them to conform to the union’s player-safety concerns about a longer season and owners’ salary concerns about paying out two extra game checks.
The Wall Street Journal first reported, and Smith later confirmed, the proposal, which the league brought up during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires before the 2021 season.
Smith, though, dismissed the idea out of hand.
“If somebody wants to make an 18-game proposal, we’ll look at it,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything that makes me think that it would be good for the players.”
The players’ union estimates a longer season would result in a windfall of new money for the league — up to $2.5 billion per year, according to the Journal, of which players would receive half — but would hurt players’ longevity. That’s crucial, according to NFLPA estimates, because the average NFL career is 3.4 years but would drop to 2.8 years with two more games each season. The minimum required service time for players to receive a pension and long-term health benefits is three years.
“Fans and media discuss what would happen to ratings and revenue or whether [18 games] is a good idea or bad idea. For us, it comes down to who players are as men, and is it good for us,” Smith added. “If a coal miner is willing to spend more time in the hole, does it likely result in more money? Yeah. Is that a good thing for him as a person? Probably not. That’s the question nobody confronts. It’s easy to say it’s more money. But is it good for us? The answer is no.”
Packers chief executive Mark Murphy floated a compromise Friday, suggesting the league expand the season one week and use the extra game for international or neutral-site appearances.
“What we do know is our current preseason is not a good product,” Murphy said (via Action Network). “Our players don’t need four games and it seems like fewer starters are playing in them. Maybe another way to do this is to add one neutral site game and one international one for every team, so we can use this to grow the game.”
Smith in his interview with ESPN did not discuss that suggestion, but the union’s continued resistance to a longer season may give players significant leverage in negotiations, especially because owners have talked openly for years about lengthening the season by turning two preseason games into regular-season contests.
Smith said other priorities for the new CBA include improved player benefits, adjusted salary-cap minimums and protections for players who speak about social justice issues. He said it was up to league officials to determine how an 18-game schedule would play out and present a proposal that would make it palatable to players’ interests.
“Why is it our job to figure out how to make 18 games work as players? You tell someone you’re going to work longer, and you figure out how to make it work? That doesn’t work,” Smith said. “It’s not our job to put that square peg in the round hole.”
Marquee players in recent seasons have enjoyed a new degree of influence over salary issues, leaving franchises without many alternatives other than opening up their pocket books. Running back Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire 2018 season because of a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers, then signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal, with $27 million guaranteed, in the offseason with the New York Jets.
Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon has threatened to do the same thing, telling the team this week he wanted a new long-term contract with guaranteed money or he would sit out the final year of his rookie contract, in which he is set to make $5.6 million. If the team did not honor his request, he said he wanted to be traded.
“[Bell] used his power to dictate his own destiny. It’s an opinion whether you agree with him. It’s a fact that he chose to make a decision as a grown man,” Smith said. “I found it disappointing that people viewed it [in] a negative way because he made the decision on the back of his work.”
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