If football can be analogized to tennis, NFL owners have put the ball, literally and figuratively, in the players' court.
Owners voted 31-0, with Oakland abstaining, to ratify a 10-year collective bargaining agreement with the rank-and-file. The essence of the accord, however, is contingent upon the players not only ratifying the agreement but also recertifying as a union.
Even a few NFLPA officials acknowledged that the onus is in players, now that the owners have delivered an agreement.
Whether the players return serve or even choose to take the court at all was being debated in Washington at NFLPA headquarters Thursday evening.
"(The settlement) gives the players only three days -- Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of next week -- to try to bargain any changes to the old CBA," Smith said in an email to the players association. "Any such changes would have to be agreed to by the owners in order to be incorporated into the Agreement, which would then become final on Saturday, July 30. If the NFL does not agree to the players' proposed changes, the old CBA terms on benefits, discipline, safety, etc. will remain unchanged for another ten years," the email reads.
The NFL accepted the potential for a refused deal -- and more negotiations -- by saying they'd have to reconsider based on the players' response.
"If something happens (and the union does not recertify), we will have to re-think our position," said league vice president and counsel Jeff Pash.
Under terms of the agreement, which essentially sets up as a provisional accord until it is ratified by the players, and the union recertifies, the 132-day lockout is lifted. Players may begin reporting to facilities on Saturday, and the "league year," which would permit for the beginning of free agency, would start next Wednesday.
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"There is an urgency to this ... we're up against the wall," commissioner Roger Goodell said here on Thursday evening, flanked by four members of the Management Council Executive Committee.
Goodell announced that the annual Hall of Fame game, scheduled for Aug. 7 between St. Louis and Chicago, has been cancelled and termed the move "unfortunate."
The agreement proposed would run through the 2020 season. It was not easily crafted. Not only did it take more than four months to forge an accord that could last for a half-generation, but the debate among owners Thursday took nearly nine hours. No one characterized the discussion among owners as heated, but there were several technicalities and ramifications to overcome and explain.
Said one AFC owner: "Man, it's a (friggin') barrel of monkeys in there."
But apparently players all the way to the top with Smith didn't see the proposal as the shiny package owners attempted to sell in their public congratulatory powwow of a press conference.
There were signs of snags in the approval of the deal early Thursday when Smith conferenced with players and then Goodell to underline the difficulties envisioned in the recertification process. Upon the owners' vote and press conference, Smith sent an email to players before holding a conference call with player reps.
Several players, most notably board member and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, insisted earlier this spring that the players had no need to ever recertify. But to avoid potential anti-trust actions, the league and owners have been adamant about dealing with a reassembled union.
As the hours ticked away Thursday night, it became less likely that players would even consider a vote. Many took to Twitter and other media in anger over what they perceived as a "power play" by owners.
And at various times during the long day at an airport-area hotel here, there appeared to be some doubt about whether the owners would actually conduct a vote. That was especially true after Smith's stance on recertification rippled throughout the owner membership. But a few owners privately conceded to The Sports Xchange that they felt that, in the public relations battle for the souls of the fans and the perceived good of the game, they presented a positive impetus.
It was evident by the end of the day that the deal wouldn't easily pass approval of the NFLPA. If it unexpectedly falls apart, the players' side will have to assume part of the blame for any collapse.
Even if there are setbacks or delays, the owners don't expect a drawn-out wait before football begins. However optimistic it now seems, Pash emphasized that he fully expects the agreement to be ratified and for the union to recertify "expeditiously," and that the pending antitrust action against the NFL and any other legalities will be resolved by the accord -- and are proceeding as if players will act quickly to return to work.
"We intended to come in here and get an agreement ratified," Goodell said.
CEC member John Mara, the New York Giants' co-owner who served as a moderate voice throughout negotiations and perceived as trustworthy to the players, allowed that there are "probably some things" in the agreement that neither side loves. But one victory for the owners in a deal that includes no opt-out clauses is that there will be no judicial oversight. Since 1993, Judge David Doty of Minneapolis has had review over all CBA-related matters, and owners were insistent throughout on ending that.
Pash reiterated after a press conference to announce the owners' decision that there is "substantial incentive" for the players to ratify the agreement.
"In our mind, this is not a walkway transaction," Pash said. "We see it as being maybe even more than a marriage."
But before there can be any marriage, we must hear "I do" from the other side. There won't be celebratory bells ringing in Washington on Thursday night.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.