So this proposal of 17 games and beefing up the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams? Hate it in a vacuum. It’s football sprawl for the sake of revenue, and it lowers the postseason standard for what has been a delightfully difficult postseason to make. I’m not a rigid traditionalist most of the time, but as someone who wasn’t alive when the season last expanded from 14 to 16 games and knows the NFL no other way, I just want this one thing to stay the way it is.
But here’s the twist: If I were the average NFL player, I would vote to approve the new collective bargaining agreement that includes all of these supposed enhancements. I would not let Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson or any other super-rich superstar use his influence to talk me out of it.
The elite players are on their empowerment-era high horses and want to use this negotiation as the opportunity to add changing the business of the sport as we know it to their legacies. There is plenty of nobility in that aspiration, and eventually, it’s an epic confrontation with the owners that must happen to improve the future of the sport and do significantly more for retired players hobbling through the rest of their lives. But as a practical matter in the present, the owners have put a solid deal on the table, one that is a very good deal for more than 60 percent of the players, who are either playing on minimum contracts or making less than $1 million per season.
Almost a year ago, when negotiations for a new CBA intensified and an expanded season re-emerged as a hot topic, the idea was a non-starter. Just six months ago, it still seemed preposterous to think that NFL players would even consider it. The talk then was of an 18-game schedule — again — a longtime aspiration of a league always eager to increase revenue and a longtime annoyance of players whose bodies would have to absorb two more games of punishment.
Of the ridiculous possibility, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman memorably told Peter King of NBC Sports, “I think it has very little chance of happening unless something astronomical is conceded.”
But 17 games and increasing the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams? It wasn’t so crazy, and the concessions didn’t need to be astronomical. Still, there was hope for a game-changing negotiation. This is no statement deal, however, at least on the surface. It’s not a stingy one, either, which the players have had to settle for at times. It looks like substantial progress, and the owners are willing to take such a step one year before the current CBA expires because labor peace would put the league in an advantageous position to negotiate a lucrative new television contract.
Initially, I didn’t trust the owners’ motivations to rush on this deal and figured they were trying to trick the players into a shortsighted agreement. But this is a different situation from past ones. The tone from ownership, reflected in the offer, is neither condescending nor an understatement of the league’s financial status. It’s a very “Let’s get this money” vibe. It’s more respectful of the partnership than we’re used to seeing from owners.
It’s not perfect, but it’s far from insulting. It’s clear the owners really believe in the revenue potential of a 17-game schedule and a couple of additional playoff contests. So this proposal raises the players’ portion of the revenue from 47 to 48.5 percent, which the league reportedly projects would translate to $5 billion over the lifetime of the 10-year pact. The rosters would increase from 53 to 55, with 48 players (now 46) available to be active on game days. Practice squad spots would increase. Rookie contracts would improve. Minimum contracts — which are the majority of NFL deals, contrary to the misperception that every player is a mega-millionaire — would be about 20 percent higher.
In addition, there is language that would transfer player discipline power for off-field incidents from Commissioner Roger Goodell to a neutral arbitrator, relax the league’s marijuana policy and alter the intensity of training camp, including a reduction in padded practices from 28 to 16.
The proposal doesn’t create a new NFL with revenue splits at the level of the NBA or Major League Baseball, which is the dream of many players. There are no guaranteed contracts, no reinvention of the franchise-tag model.
Ultimately, when the union decides it’s time to take a full vote, this proposal is going to be approved, even though it had a somewhat difficult time getting signed off by the executive committee and the player reps. That’s why there is such backlash this week, with several of the NFL’s biggest stars expressing why they will vote no.
There’s a feeling among some prominent players that they can squeeze more out of the owners, and they should try to do so with a year remaining in the current CBA. That would be a miscalculation. The owners want this done by March 18, the start of the new league year. They want the leverage of labor peace as they go to television and streaming executives. They don’t want to negotiate with the players during the season. The matter is more urgent than it seems, and if this proposal doesn’t go through, the next owner offer probably wouldn’t be as generous.
That shouldn’t scare the players if they think it’s a bad deal. They have to understand, however, that if they want to use the expanded schedule to receive something in the neighborhood of astronomical concessions, they would probably have to be willing to strike and miss regular season games to do so. The timing of such a move would be awkward because the league is doing so well, and this offer makes many things better.
It’s cliche to think that good is the enemy of great, but you also can say that great is the enemy of good. Take the deal, players. It’s incremental progress toward the dream of changing the game. More pragmatic, it’s too good for the average player. Even for a scheduling purist, that makes more football tolerable.