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NFL players ratify new CBA with expanded playoffs, 17-game season

DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, speaks in Miami during Super Bowl week. (Chris Carlson/AP)

NFL players narrowly ratified a new collective bargaining agreement with the league’s team owners, guaranteeing another decade of labor peace and ushering in major changes that include an expanded playoff field and a 17-game regular season.

The NFL Players Association announced Sunday morning the deal had been approved by a vote of 1,019 to 959 — meaning it passed by a mere 60 votes among the 1,978 cast by dues-paying union members, for an approval rate of 51.5 percent. Ratification required a majority.

“This result comes after a long and democratic process in accordance with our constitution," the NFLPA said in a written statement announcing the voting result, which was verified by an independent auditor.

What you need to know about the NFL’s new labor agreement

The deal was previously ratified by the owners and takes effect immediately. The new CBA will bring some modifications for the 2020 season and then will run for 10 years after that, through the 2030 season. That will give the NFL 20 years without a work stoppage, since the owners locked out the players before the sides struck a 10-year deal in 2011.

“We are pleased that the players have voted to ratify the proposed new CBA, which will provide substantial benefits to all current and retired players, increase jobs, ensure continued progress on player safety, and give our fans more and better football,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a written statement in which he also called the deal “transformative.”

The playoffs expand from 12 to 14 teams beginning in the 2020 season. The regular season increases from 16 to 17 games sometime between the 2021 and 2023 seasons. The preseason will be reduced, probably to three games initially and probably in conjunction with the longer regular season. There will be player-friendly changes to the league’s marijuana policy and disciplinary system. There will be further restrictions on the amount of practice-field hitting done by players, particularly during training camp.

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The players will receive an increased share of the league’s revenue under the salary cap system, and the NFL’s minimum salary will increase immediately by at least $90,000. Those financial considerations for rank-and-file players were believed to be particularly persuasive after the leadership of the NFLPA put the deal to a final ratification vote of all players. That vote was conducted electronically and took place over more than a week, concluding at 11:59 p.m. Saturday.

The CBA was negotiated between the NFL and NFLPA — and ratified by owners — in a seemingly strong U.S. economy. The players’ vote concluded with stocks in a bear market amid a global novel coronavirus pandemic, with some analysts predicting a worldwide recession.

Wall Street faced one of its worst days in history March 9, amid crashing oil prices and the global spread of the coronavirus. (Video: Reuters)

DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director, said in an open letter released overnight, before the voting result was announced Sunday, that he heard “loudly and clearly” the objections of the players opposed to the CBA, but he defended the deal.

“The current proposal contains increases across almost every category of wages, hours, working conditions and benefits for current and former players,” Smith wrote. “Like any contested negotiation … the proposal also reflects trades with the counterparty which have to be carefully weighed and assessed across the entirety of the deal.”

Prominent players such as star quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay and Russell Wilson of Seattle and standout defenders J.J. Watt of Houston and Richard Sherman of San Francisco had expressed opposition to the deal. Rodgers is the Packers’ player representative and Sherman is part of the NFLPA’s player leadership, making their voices particularly influential. Sherman expressed opposition to a 17-game season, citing player health and safety. Rodgers questioned whether players were getting enough in return for their agreement to a longer regular season.

Russell Okung files unfair labor practices charge against NFLPA

Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter, the union’s newly elected president, acknowledged in a written statement Sunday that players “have been split on this deal” but said, “Going forward, it is our duty to lead, however we may feel as individuals, to bring our men together and to continue to represent the interests of our entire membership.”

Russell Okung, the offensive lineman about to be traded to the Carolina Panthers and a former member of the NFLPA’s executive committee, went so far as to file an unfair labor practices charge last week against the union with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB will investigate the charge and decide whether to issue a complaint, and the case could end up before an administrative law judge. Okung, represented by attorney Peter Ginsberg, could challenge the CBA vote, having contended in his NLRB charge that the NFLPA violated its own voting procedures.

But the deal had the backing of top NFLPA leaders. Smith and other NFLPA representatives spent close to a year negotiating the new CBA with representatives of the league and owners. The players on the executive committee voted, 6-5, against recommending approval of the deal during a recent conference call, which was curious because those players had been closely involved in the negotiations with the owners.

But the NFLPA’s 32 player reps voted, 17-14 (with one abstention), to put the deal to a vote of all players. That vote was taken in Indianapolis late last month during the NFL scouting combine, just after a final bargaining meeting between representatives of the owners and players. Ballots were sent to players after attorneys for the league and NFLPA drafted the formal document.

The league and owners now can move quickly to negotiating a new set of broadcasting deals with the television networks and potential streaming partners, armed with the additional inventory of the expanded playoffs and longer regular season. Owners had been eager to wrap up the CBA process so they could turn to the broadcasting deals with the U.S. economy relatively healthy — at least before the recent plunge — and with the NFL coming off a 2019 season with strong TV viewership.

On Feb. 20, the owners ratified the CBA during a special meeting in New York and the Dow Jones industrial average closed at 29,348.03. On Friday, the Dow closed at 23,185.62, some 21 percent lower. The nation’s sports leagues shut down in recent days, with social distancing policies in effect because of the coronavirus.

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Players will receive 48 percent of revenue beginning in 2021 and potentially 48.5 percent once the switch to 17 games is made. The NFLPA estimated that will be worth an additional $5 billion to players over the course of the agreement. NFL teams were informed Sunday the salary cap for the 2020 season is $198.2 million per team; once benefits and performance-based pay are figured in, player costs per team are $242.9 million.

The NFL informed teams Sunday night that the league and NFLPA would not postpone free agency. Teams have until 11:59 a.m. ET Monday to use franchise or transition tags to limit players’ free agent mobility. Free agents can begin negotiating with other teams at noon Monday. The free agent market officially opens at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Each team now can use only one tag, either the franchise tag or the transition tag, to limit a single player’s free agent mobility. Each team would have been able to use two tags, one of each variety, if players had rejected the new CBA and the previous CBA had been in effect in its final year.

The new CBA will be worth an additional $650 million to $700 million for the players in the 2020 season alone, according to estimates by both sides, based on modified salary cap and tag rules, increased minimum salaries, the players’ share of expanded-playoff revenue and benefits.

When the 17-game season begins, teams are expected to alternate between a season with nine home games and a season with eight home games. All 16 teams in a conference probably will have the same number of home games in a given season.

Under the expanded playoffs, seven teams in each conference will qualify for the postseason instead of the current six. Only one team per conference will be given a first-round bye, down from the current two. That means there will be six opening-round games — three in each conference — instead of four. The NFL will have to decide whether one of those games will be played on a Monday night.

The new deal eliminates the possibility of a player being suspended for a positive test for marijuana; a player can be suspended for marijuana only under extreme circumstances, such as a fraudulent test or an agreement by doctors that a player is a habitual user who is at risk and needs time off the field.

Goodell no longer will be empowered to both make initial disciplinary rulings and resolve players’ appeals in cases under the personal conduct policy. Goodell retains his authority to resolve appeals, but the initial disciplinary ruling will be made by a neutral party appointed by the league and NFLPA. Goodell keeps his power to both make the initial ruling and resolve the appeal in any case that involves the integrity of the game.

If the players had rejected the proposed CBA, both sides probably would have intensified preparations for a possible work stoppage in 2021.