Could a Players Strike Work for the NFL Players

Mike Freeman had another thought provoking article about a strategy down the line for a players strike. There are a number of good points here on planning how to win, but the reality is it is going to be very difficult to get a group of players to ever consider a strike and before you can use a strike to win you need somewhere around 2,000 players to feel loyal to the cause. That is not easy. The biggest issue just deals with the economics of the NFL and the general lack of a foundation to “rally” the players around the idea. We’ll look at some ways in which the union can try to get those players to feel they benefit from a strike the way the top players would.

Whenever we hear about strikes in the NFL it never really comes with specifics. Even going back to the NFL lockout of 2011 it’s hard to really see what the union objectives were. Most of the talk, at least publicly, was centered on the option of decertifying the union. Based on the eventual deal that was signed it would seem that the unions major issues seemed to deal with player safety via reduced practice time, no 18 game schedule and shorter offseason workout programs, added injury protection that would be standardized across the NFL, an attempt to move money from rookies to veterans, and finally the tying of team cash spending to the salary cap rather than a focus on salary cap spending. I don’t think any of those are issues that would get the league as a whole to strike and needless to say as soon as it was time to do football activities the players were ready to get back to work ASAP.

Its 6 years later and still I’m not sure what the vision is. One group of players talks about the commissioner having too much power. On another day another group is talking about guaranteed contracts. Another deals with more player safety. Another is focused on veterans earning more. Another wants more overall money. It’s haphazard and sounds more like some of the stuff coming out of Washington DC these days where you talk about a million things but don’t have a real focus on any.

In reading what older players say about the last lockout/strike many feel as if they were misled about the deal. Things seemed to come down quickly and the final selling point was more money to veterans. That never materialized. Even though many of those players are gone the sentiment probably remains to some extent and if you want to recapture the majority of the players the communication has to not only be better during negotiations but it has to begin now to sell everyone on an idea and make sure that these are focus points for the union.

The economic reality of the league is that the majority of the money is tied up in a very small portion of NFL players. While they are not earning as much as their NBA counterparts the average salaries of these players is very high. The league is likely on pace to spend about $5 billion in salaries to players this year. About 17% of that total will go to 50 players. 50% of the total will go to just 250 players, about 12% of the entire league population.

While buy in from these top players is important since they are the stars of the league, they should be economically in a position to sacrifice for some big goals; the 75% of the players who make up just 30% of the leagues wealth are not. For the young players in that group you are potentially asking them to sacrifice the rest of their career. Around 45% of players drafted in the 7th round are cut by the first year of their draft and 35% of 6th rounders don’t make it to year 2.   The 5th round is about 30%. UDFAs are obviously less. On the veteran end you have many guys going for a last payday and hoping they have one more year where they can make the league and pocket around $1 million.

So many of the topics that are touched on are going to benefit the 250 players in the league who have already “made it”.  There are probably just as many on the low end who would effectively be giving up their careers, some before it ever got started, by striking. It would be near impossible for the union to expect those players to not cross unless there is something concrete in it for them.

Last season there were about 1,270 players who were on contracts that averaged the veteran’s minimum ($1.065 million) or less. Currently about 15% of those players, about 195 in all, are no longer under contract to a NFL team. We are not yet even in training camp and rosters have to be slashed from 90 to 53 so you can be sure that number will likely at least double by September. The upper echelon (those over the minimum) has lost about 12%, or about 100 players. That number will grow too but not nearly as much over the next month.

Either way it’s pretty simple to see that a strike is likely going to mean that close to 25% of those supporting the strike are effectively giving away their career for the strike, most of whom did not make much playing the game. Most of those players have not been fortunate enough to be in a position where their earning power has put them in a position to be in a good financial position. It’s a very hard sell to those players.

On top of those numbers there are also a good chunk of players aiming for free agency that would likely have their contracts toll if a strike occurred. That’s another year of injury risk. That’s one less year of earning power. That again is a hard sell.

While talking about “more money and guarantees” sounds great on paper what the last CBA negotiation showed is that more revenues did not benefit the majority of the league.  Salaries, particularly for quarterbacks, spiked. Teams invested more at the top and used new rules regarding no minimum cap spending to create contracts that hurt some of those close to the top and in the middle by giving far more flexibility to teams via contract structures that did not exist nearly to this extent pre-2011. If Im the 230th pick in the draft Im only going to strike if I can help my bottom line, not Andrew Luck’s.

The union has to first find ways to fight for the bottom before they move to the sexy topics of fighting for the top. They need to start rallying the base on that idea now not simply as a throwaway four years from now. So what are some ways to accomplish that?

Ensure the bottom tier is paid.

I think to do this the NFLPA has to set forth one plan and one firm negotiating objective. Since we determined about 200 players will definitely lose their job in any given year and more likely that number will be closer to 400 by the time the season starts the union has to find a way to protect those players.

The union should set up two funds for this purpose. One fund is to keep the players financially stable for the year. I would accomplish this by paying every player under contract at or below the veterans minimum a practice squad salary. For the sake of argument we can call this $110,000 give or a take a few dollars. This needs to cover our 1,300 minimum players who would be expected to be on a roster plus another 320 players who are going to lose practice squad opportunities. This would work out to be a fund of about $178 million to be distributed equally among the lower income players.

The negotiation aspect of this deals with roster sizes.  Currently the NFL mandates 53 roster spots plus a 10 man practice squad. If, even for just one year with options to continue the expansion, they bump the active roster to 63 along with the practice squad it will create an additional 320 jobs. That would cover a large percentage of the low tier players who would normally not be asked back in any given year.

These players would be given a mandatory one year split salary guarantee on their current contract or receive a mandatory split guarantee on any one year extension signed after the strike if they were a free agent. This is to make certain that those spots are held by the players who risked a season rather than being used for another group of undrafted players who had not been exposed to the same risk.

In addition each NFL team would be given a salary cap waiver for up to 10 players on a contract with an APY under the vet minimum. For a player on a rookie contract they would only be eligible if they were drafted in the 4th round or later. The league did something similar for veterans in the last CBA offering a cap credit for players under contract prior to the strike. The problem with that is it really didn’t prevent the release of those who needed it. This would protect players with the highest cut rates.

The second fund would then cover lost wages for those not asked to return to the NFL. While we have trimmed that group in theory by 320, there are still going to be some 100+ players likely out of work. Some of these are players who were free agents before or after the strike, depending on how tolling contracts are handled. This fund would likely need to be around $70 million.

Raise minimum salaries and growth rates.

Nobody wants a max contract limit like there is in the NBA, but that system has helped the bottom and mid tier players who often sign somewhat head scratching contracts simply because the money has to go somewhere.  In the NFL the increased cap has worked the other way. The union can help fix that by increasing the minimums at the bottom.

As spending requirements go up the star players, particularly in free agency, get paid more and more while those in the middle and the bottom get pinched.  The NFL currently raises minimum rookie salaries by $15,000 per year. In the last two seasons minimum salaries have risen by less than 5% while the cap has risen over 16.5%.  True veteran minimums have risen between just 3 and 4%. Veterans, really should be earning 2-3X as much as rookies, but its not that much anymore.

Those numbers mean that the league had an additional $759 million in cap space they could spend over those two years. Only $39 million of that goes to minimum salary increases. Signing bonus money for draft picks is basically pegged to the salary cap so about $76 million has gone to increased bonus money since 2015 as well as raises for the first and second rounders in each year of their contract. The rest is pumped into the top valued areas on the field leaving the league in a spot where Ryan Tannehill and Sam Bradford aren’t valued much less than Matt Ryan since so many other players are simply earmarked for low valued contracts.

The yearly minimum P5 should have raises based on how much the cap has grown since 2013, basically meaning raises of 7-7.5% per year.  Catchup provisions should be made by increasing both sets of minimums.  If such a change was made this year the rookie 1st year salary would jump from $465,000 to $535,000 while veterans would jump from $775, 000, $885,000, and $985,000 to $1,070,000, $1,340,000, and $1,605,000 respectively. I think you should argue for more (Im basing these off the 2011 CBA where players at the bottom were already poorly compensated especially vets), but this should be the minimum acceptable levels.  This gives the majority of the league a chance to really benefit from any increased revenue splits rather than just going on strike to make the top end earn more.

While this clearly reduces the overall money available to stars, it isn’t going to come from the pockets of those who really deserve it, but instead force the league to think twice about paying as much for average players at expensive positions or make them get more creative with the salary cap. The more creative teams need to be with the cap the better it will be for players who sign longer contracts anyway.

Reduce contract length/increase escalators

This is not going to help veterans but it will make the league a fairer place for the younger players looking to cash in at an early time. If the union can negotiate contracts down from 4 to 3 years it will benefit all young players around the NFL and give them more reason to be firm on the strike even if most won’t benefit from this rule.

Admittedly this is a difficult one for the union to win but an easier compromise might be to increase the current standard escalator from that of the ROFR tender in rookie contracts to any of the tenders based on playing time. This would prevent a situation like a young Richard Sherman being stuck at a $1.5M or so salary while a lesser UDFA could have earned over $2.5 million. There should also be an escalator available in the 3rd year of the contract based on playing time if contracts remain at 4 years. These escalators also need to be guaranteed once earned or treated as incentives once earned.

These were just some thoughts on the subject and I certainly don’t want to see a player strike nor do I think its necessary if the sides, which have many years to hammer out a new deal, actually talk rather than prepare for court like the last go around. But if striking is an option on the table and the union wants it to stick they need to think first about that 1,300 players closer to the bottom and getting them the information they need and explaining what they are doing for them. If come 2020 or 2021 they just do what they did in 2011 and get that years Tom Brady to put his name on a lawsuit as if that is going to do something magical that group wont last any longer than the 2011 group which signed themselves up for a 10 year deal that they weren’t very happy within 2 or 3 years.

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @jason_otc