Negotiations between representatives of the NFL’s 32 team owners and its more than 2,000 players on a new collective bargaining agreement nearly unraveled several times. Those on the owners’ side wondered as late as mid-December if the deal simply could not be completed. They nixed a ratification vote slated for the Saturday before the Super Bowl when cracks began to show on the players’ side.
Those differences became so pronounced that one player leader, Russell Okung, accused his own union of violating its voting procedures. The deal was approved by only 51.5 percent of players who voted.
“You certainly have to wonder,” one agent said recently, “if this thing would’ve passed if the entire world hadn’t just been turned upside down.”
That agent spoke on the condition of anonymity, as did a half-dozen others close to or involved in the negotiations to provide candid views about how the sides proceeded toward a new CBA. Here’s how the deal, which runs through the 2030 season and includes a 14-team playoff field starting next season and a 17-game regular season beginning between 2021 and 2023, got done.
In October 2016, New York Giants co-owner John Mara wrote to DeMaurice Smith, the NFL Players Association’s executive director, and Eric Winston, the offensive lineman serving as the union’s president.
“We’re five years in,” Mara wrote, referring to the 2011 CBA struck after owners locked out players. “Things are going well for everybody. Shouldn’t we be sitting down and talking about an extension?”
Mara is chairman of the NFL’s Management Council Executive Committee, the owners’ bargaining group. But the invitation produced nothing for about a year. The league and union had been in court over Commissioner Roger Goodell’s suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the Deflategate case.
The thawing of the frosty relationship began when Smith suggested to Goodell in the fall of 2017 that the sides allow staff members to talk and identify issues. That launched a series of seminar-like discussions in which the NFLPA said its focus was not on its star players.
“That was the theme from the start: the core player,” one person with knowledge of the negotiations said.
The first formal bargaining session came March 19, 2019, in Minneapolis. The NFLPA had players on its 11-member executive committee there, along with Smith and staffers. Goodell attended, but he and Smith said little. Owners said the 2011 agreement, unlike the 2006 CBA, had allowed them to invest and grow the game, and players benefited through increases in the salary cap. The NFLPA contingent spoke of the core players.
In May, the owners made what they called a reallocation proposal, calling for 5 percent to be withheld from each player’s pay for post-retirement income. If the collective pay of the league’s 320 highest-paid players exceeded a certain percentage of leaguewide pay, the overage could be shifted from higher- to lower-paid players using the withheld pay. The players rejected the concept, preferring higher minimum salaries to close the pay gap.
Players asked owners June 12 in Chicago about the reasoning behind doing a new deal with a year remaining on the 2011 CBA. Owners argued there were political and economic risks to waiting. That’s when the length of the season came up specifically for the first time.
An owner asked the players about the possibility of an 18-game season in which each player is limited to 16 games. The players didn’t like the idea, considering it too gimmicky. Owners had proposed an 18-game season, as a revenue-boosting measure, during negotiations for the 2011 CBA, only to drop it when the union objected on player-safety grounds.
Winston sent Mara a letter July 9, and the NFLPA made its first comprehensive proposal, covering all issues. The owners rejected it quickly. During a meeting July 17, Mara told the players: “You think we’re more eager than we are. We’ll play under the last year [of the 2011 CBA] if we have to.” Winston urged the sides to “grind through this.”
The players then said they needed to emerge with more than the 47 percent of revenue they averaged, under the salary cap, over the duration of the 2011 CBA. The owners said that was doable, but only if there was a means of creating additional revenue.
At an Aug. 19 meeting, the owners proposed a 17-game regular season and a three-game preseason, with an option for them to go to an 18-game season and a two-game preseason, in exchange for the players getting 48 percent of revenue, with a still-undefined way to float above 48 percent.
A week later in Chicago, Goodell and Mara met with Smith and Winston, along with a couple of staff members on each side. The players’ side pushed back on an 18-game season, leaving the league to conclude that 17 games was doable but 18 games — or even the option to go to 18 games — was an uphill climb. Smith headed out for his annual team-by-team tour to meet with players.
Negotiations resumed around Oct. 1 in Jacksonville, where Smith was visiting the Jaguars. The owners were encouraged because Smith did not emerge from his meetings with players saying that a 17-game season was a non-starter. He and Winston told the owners that the players wanted 49 percent of the revenue. The owners said they wouldn’t go to 49 percent but they could go above 48.
For the first time, the sides discussed a media kicker. That, ultimately, would be the way to get the players above 48 percent: The increase to the players’ share would kick in based on how much additional revenue the owners could generate in their next set of broadcasting deals with the TV networks and streaming partners.
“We continued to be of the view that 17 for 48 and a kicker, that was the fundamental exchange,” a person on the management side said.
The sides eventually settled on the players jumping to 48.5 percent of revenue if the league manages a 60 percent increase in broadcasting income and as much as 48.8 percent of revenue if broadcasting income more than doubles.
Among the dozens of issues in the negotiations, this was the trade-off that mattered most. It took months to work out. Goodell spoke to Smith. Mara spoke to Winston. A players’ proposal on the kicker left the owners believing at the end of a Dec. 19 call that there was no deal to be made. Smith and Winston met with Patriots owner Robert Kraft at a Dec. 21 New England home game.
Smith and Goodell met Dec. 23. The concept of “schmuck insurance” was raised: What if the owners opted to stay at a 16-game season and 47 percent of revenue for the players instead of making the switch to 17 games and 48 percent? The players needed something to ensure that wouldn’t happen. Smith previously had raised the possibility the owners might not find the 17th game as valuable as expected to the networks. So the league provided the insurance: The players would get 48 percent of revenue beginning in 2021 even if the owners didn’t go to 17 games.
Other issues began falling into place, and the owners thought the players would ratify the deal first. All owners were told to be ready to travel to Miami for a potential Feb. 1 meeting to take a ratification vote on the day before the Super Bowl.
“We were prepared to have a meeting at the Super Bowl to approve it,” a person on the owners’ side said.
It didn’t happen because Smith faced a tough test, as it turned out, getting the deal through the players’ ratification process. The players were divided when they met in Miami and divided when they left. The owners, trying to push the process along, called a special meeting for Feb. 20 in New York and approved the deal. The players spoke by conference call Feb. 21, but the deal still didn’t have the votes. The executive committee, which had helped negotiate it, voted, 6-5, not to recommend approval to the 32 player reps.
“The sense [among players who opposed the deal] was, ‘Why are we caving in on 17 games?’ Or, ‘Why aren’t we getting 50 percent [of revenue] if we are caving in?’ ” one player leader said. “And also, ‘Why do this deal now?’”
Some players accused NFLPA leadership of overreacting and fearmongering by pushing forward on the new CBA with a year to go on the existing one. The players arranged a meeting with the owners the following week in Indianapolis at the NFL combine.
The day before that Feb. 25 meeting, the NFLPA sent a memo to agents saying the deal would be sent to a vote of all players if a majority of the 32 player reps voted for that, with a recommendation for ratification if two-thirds of the reps voted for it. Okung later would file an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the union of violating its own voting procedures, an allegation the NFLPA denied.
The meeting at the Conrad hotel in Indianapolis lasted about four hours. Players met into the wee hours before the reps voted, 17-14 with one abstention, to forward the deal to a vote of all players.
Prominent players such as Aaron Rodgers (the Green Bay Packers’ player rep), J.J. Watt and Russell Wilson came out against the deal, joining NFLPA player leaders Richard Sherman and Okung. Voting began electronically after lawyers put the deal into writing. As the deadline neared and then was extended two days, national concerns about the novel coronavirus were intensifying and the stock market was plummeting.
“It was really about hoping the [rank-and-file] players would vote in their own best interests, rather than being influenced by every tweet that came out against it,” a player involved in the NFLPA leadership said, referring to the bolstered minimum salaries in the deal.
The sense among agents was that the late voting shifted heavily in favor of the deal, although there was no way of knowing that for certain. Voting ended at 11:59 p.m. March 14, and NFLPA officials received the results the following morning: The deal passed by 60 votes — 1,019 in favor, 959 against.
On March 15, Smith called Goodell around 10 a.m. The NFL and its players, amid the chaos, had a new CBA.