As the deadline to free agency approaches and the first season in more than 15 years without an NFL salary cap gets closer, optimism for the near-term and long-term labor situation is fading fast.
The NFL Players Association conducted its annual agents meeting Friday in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine, and executive director DeMaurice Smith had a message of resistance, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting.
"It sure was an antithesis from anything we ever heard from Gene Upshaw," one agent said, referring to the previous NFLPA executive director who died in 2008. "The concern that I have is the lack of concern that the players and the owners (have for) the fans. The rhetoric to me can be polarizing. I think we're forgetting the fans. You've got this war between (the two sides) and you don't hear from (NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell. The tenor was pretty aggressive and pretty confident that there is going to be a lockout instead of the issue of compromise. It was more of we're preparing for the lockout. We spent most of the time talking about the lockout instead of solving the problem."
According to Scout.com's Adam Caplan, that sentiment is share by other agents who attended the meeting. The feeling among the agent community is that there will be no extension to the collective bargaining agreement before the start of free agency this year, and there is fear that owners are preparing for a lockout in the 2011 season, Caplan said.
Owners were spending close to 60 percent of their defined gross revenues on player salaries in 2009. Since 1994, the salary cap nearly quadrupled from its mark of $34.6 million back then. In 2009, it was about $128 million.
Owners opted out of the current CBA because of rising expenses due to stadium debt payments and trying to expand the game, according to the NFL. The current deal is set to expire after the 2010 season, but there isn't much optimism that the issues will be resolved soon.
"The concern I have is, for both millionaires and billionaires in this economy, most of the time the fans don't count. This time around, in this sophisticated world, I think both can come away hurt," the agent said. "Sports is a different animal than (other) labor negotiations (with) benchmark quality issues. … I didn't feel ever that there was a concern (for the fans in Smith's address). It's disconcerting."
While there is no threat to the 2010 season, the rules of free agency will change if there is no deal before the March 5 start of free agency. But the level of spending when free agency hits could be down, especially among small-market teams like Jacksonville that have struggled to fill its stadium.
But right now Smith has been preaching about the NFL's strategies for a lockout and there hasn't been much public talk about sitting down to negotiate the main issue – that owners are looking for concessions in the percentage of money they are required to spend on player salaries.
"The adrenaline becomes greater than the substance. People getting a new toy," the agent said, referring Smith's new platform as the executive director of the players union. "There needs to be a sophisticated sensitivity to it."
"(The negotiating points were) all so dead-on-arrival, non-negotiable. There was no energy on compromise."
That has left more than just the fans without much control. While the NFL and its owners battle against the union and its players, coaches and general managers are left to try to figure out the new rules of free agency that will come with an uncapped 2010 season.
"You do the best you can," said Nick Caserio, Patriots vice president of player personnel. "… You have to worry about the 2010 season, and that's kind of why everybody is here getting ready for the draft. You're preparing for that. As far as what happens beyond that, I mean, it's out of our hands, it's out of our control. You kind of deal in the present, and once whatever resolution is reached, as long as we know what the rules are, then we'll proceed accordingly."
One of the new rules of an uncapped season is that a free agent must have six years of NFL experience to become unrestricted, whereas before he could be unrestricted with only four years of experience. That has left more than 200 players who would have been unrestricted free agents now dealing the less attractive situation of being a restricted free agent.
"It will affect some of the players," said Bears coach Lovie Smith. "But for the most part I don't think it will make a big difference for us. We have a couple guys in a tough situation, but they realize that. You can't go into it thinking it will affect you a lot."
But if the union and owners don't find a new CBA, it is expected to result in a lockout.
"I always knew it was serious, but I came away (from Friday's meeting) confident that it was serious," the agent said. "I did not come away feeling it would be resolved."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Optimism dwindles regarding NFL labor deal
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