Ramifications of CBA opt-out could be huge

The NFL Players Association is publicly starting to dig in for a fight against the owners when it comes to opting out of the CBA. It could mean a drastic reduction to NFL parity.

Shortly before his untimely death last year, NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw warned that if the salary cap in the NFL was to go away, it would never return. Thursday at the Super Bowl festivities, NFLPA President Kevin Mawae told the media that the players may be willing to take that risk.

Mawae, the top union official among active players, took part in the union's annual press conference. He said the players would be willing to "roll the dice" on an uncapped year – which would take the salary cap out of the equation. The salary cap was at the heart of the owners voting last year to pull out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which triggered a clause that would make the 2009 season the last season with a salary cap if a new agreement isn't reached.

Fans may recall a similar problem that faced the league in 2006. The prospect of an uncapped year loomed on the horizon and, when it seemed as though all hope was lost to maintain labor peace, a deal was brokered. Free agency was twice delayed as the two sides hammered out the details and a potential contract breakdown was avoided. The same dark cloud hangs over the league now, as owners claim they gave up too much and that the salary cap figure doesn't factor in the cost to owners of building and maintaining stadiums.

What has helped separate the NFL from Major League Baseball is that there isn't the disparity in the "haves" and "have nots" of the league, at least when it comes to player salaries. The wealth is shared equally among the owners. But taking the cap off could have dire consequences that many believe have ruined baseball.

In the Major Leagues, there are a handful of teams that have incredibly bloated payrolls – the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Mets and Cubs top the list. On the flip side, there are teams like the Twins, Pirates, Royals and Rays that refuse to spend top dollar – claiming they are "small market" teams that can't afford to spend heavily on acquiring top talent.

The result has been a huge disparity between the payrolls of teams not only in the same sport, but in the same division. Many believe it has ruined baseball. The Steelers are playing in their second Super Bowl in the last four years, which is great for Pittsburgh sports fans. But 2009 is likely to mark the year that the Pirates set the professional sports record for consecutive losing seasons. It's easy to see why fans in Pennsylvania are Steelers fans, but it is almost impossible to imagine how anyone can be a lifelong Pirates fan given their consistent futility and the seeming lack of any interest in improving themselves.

The same malaise could happen in the NFL if the uncapped year becomes reality. Owners like Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder would be able to spend tens of millions more than other teams, like the Yankees do to cherry-pick all the top free-agent prospects. On the flip side, teams that are notorious for being cheap, like the Bengals and Cardinals, would not be bound to the salary-cap minimum currently in place. In such an event, those teams could under-spend, creating a chasm between those who could become dominant franchises and those that would annually make money, but likely have little to no success.

A provision in the uncapped year would create another set of problems. The last eight teams left standing in the playoffs – for 2009 that would have been the Giants, Panthers, Eagles, Cardinals, Titans, Steelers, Ravens and Chargers – would not be able to sign a free agent until they lost one of their own. In that scenario, the Cowboys and Redskins could shower money at free agents, but the Giants and Eagles wouldn't be able to do so until somebody raided their team for a free agent. It would allow for the top teams in a given year to be hamstrung completely until they lost some of their own talent. After that, all bets would again be off.

One carrot in the owner's favor to get a deal done is that players wouldn't be eligible to be unrestricted free agents after four seasons. Under the rules if the cap goes away, a player wouldn't become a UFA until after his sixth season, but would be a restricted free agent after his fourth and fifth season unless signed to a long-term rookie contract.

Before fans get into a "Chicken Little" complex and claim the sky is falling, there are still 13 months available for a new agreement to be put in place. Cooler heads can prevail. At a time when the economic forecast for just about everyone is shaky at best, the NFL and the players union can still find a way to keep everyone happy. This isn't Circuit City. It's the NFL. There's enough money to go around if greed doesn't get in the way.

That said, it appears as though a line is being drawn in the sand by both sides and, barring a change of heart or strong intervention from Commissioner Roger Goodell, what has helped make the NFL the most viable of professional sports in terms of competitive balance, could go away. About the only thing both sides agree upon is that if the salary cap goes away, it won't be coming back – which would be a travesty to a sport that is celebrating a Super Bowl that includes a first-time entrant.


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