Football fans may remember two nasty strikes, one in 1982 that nearly ended the season after 2 games, and another in 1987 in which the owners convinced the TV networks to broadcast games with scab players, destroying any leverage the players had.
After several lawsuits, and the near decertification of the players union, the league and players entered a tremendous era of cooperation with the collective bargaining agreement of 1993, which has been extended two times and appears poised for a third extension. The brilliance of this document lies not only in the benefits of a salary cap for the owners and free agency for the players. Not even in the improved injury protections and pensions for those whose careers are shorter than their dreams.
No, the most amazing feature of the CBA is the means by which it demands it be renewed or extended years before it officially expires.
The current agreement was extended in 2001 and ratified in time for the 2002 season. Under the agreement, the salary cap is in place for the 2002 through 2006 seasons, with 2007 designated as “uncapped”, meaning that portion of the agreement wouldn’t apply that year. Despite the lack of a salary cap, the skeleton of the CBA would still be in effect, so there couldn’t be any labor stoppage until at least 2008, essentially a one year buffer. The owners most certainly are motivated to ensure the uncapped year never occurs, so from their perspective, they will do everything possible to make sure the existing deal is re-worked before 2008.
But what about the players? Wouldn’t they just love to let the deal play out until 2007 and force the owners to pay them huge dollars lest they be charged with collusion? In fact, the deal turns the screws on the players long before 2007. The CBA dictates that guaranteed signing bonuses are pro-rated over the life of the contracts, but limits how many years can pro-rated into uncapped years, in this case 2007 and beyond.
The contracts signed by Grant Wistrom and Darrell Jackson were both six year contracts, because for 2004, no bonus can be spread out more than six seasons. In 2002 and 2003, bonuses were spread over as many as seven seasons. So, while it might be fun for players to see what takes place in an uncapped year, a lot of players will enter free agency during season where bonuses (usually the only guaranteed money) are curtailed. In 2005, the limit becomes 5 years, and in ’06 bonuses can only go over 4 years. That’s a lot of pain for the players to endure to reach the tenuous gold mine of ’07.
Also, ’07 has another pratfall, which is fourth year players will no longer qualify for unfettered free agency. The uncapped market would benefit fewer players, making it even less likely for the players union to want that to happen.
This problem will definitely impact negotiations with our potential free agents like Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck. Right now, they’ll enter free agency in a year when their bonuses can only be spread over five seasons. Their ability to command big deals would be much greater if the CBA were modified in time for next year’s free agent season when seven year bonuses might be back on the table. There are definitely rumblings in the media that the two sides are talking things over.
If the players sense that bigger deals can be reached in 2005, it would behoove them to simply wait until then. This is sort of a dirty little secret that agents and teams rarely talk about, but as pro-rated years are cut short, so are potential bonuses, and players who don’t mind risking a year of injury would be wise to hold off one year.
So, don’t be shocked if we go into the season without new long-term deals for Hasselbeck, Jones or Alexander. The system is designed to discourage that from happening right now, but it’s a small price to pay to avoid a repeat of the labor turmoil of the 1980s. We live under a system designed to keep the games from ever being shut down. Think about it: would you rather be a hockey fan now?
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