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NFL players ratify – barely – a new collective bargaining agreement

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For much of the last two weeks, NFL players seemed genuinely split when it came to the new collective bargaining agreement seeking their approval.

The schism was apparent: The wealthier players sought to reject it, focusing on aspects they thought were detrimental, such as expanding the regular season to 17 games. The working class players largely favored it, concentrating on the improvements in pay and benefits.

It was impossible to predict how it would all shake out when it finally came to a vote. It was simply too close to call.

As it turned out, the affirmative faction prevailed, but by the slimmest of margins. The CBA was ratified 1019-959, its approval requiring only a simple majority.

What it means is there will now be labor peace in the game through at least 2030 with expanded playoffs in 2020 and an expanded regular season perhaps as early as 2021.

“I think that’s something we knew, that it would be close,” new NFLPA president JC Tretter told ESPN. “We just came out of our rep meeting and we had a sense of that based on the discussions. But just as with anything, the majority rules.”

The league’s owners voted in February to ratify the deal. They were just waiting for the players to say yes. But just over 500 members of the 2,500 member players union didn’t even bother to vote during the 10-day window.

“We are pleased that the players have voted to ratify the proposed new CBA, which will provide substantial benefits to all current and retired players, increase jobs, ensure continued progress on player safety, and give our fans more and better football,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement.

The new CBA includes a number of features that seemingly favor the players, like a shortened preseason schedule, higher minimum salaries, expanded rosters and practice squads and changes to the league’s discipline policies. More importantly, the deal increases the players’ share of league revenue from 47% to 48% in 2021 and to at least 48.5% when 17 games are finally played.

The owners get one more regular season game and two additional wild card playoff games since the field will increase from 12 to 14 teams. That will help generate the additional broadcast revenue from their partners needed to pay the improved benefits.

“The result comes after a long and democratic process in accordance with our constitution,” the NFLPA tweeted. “We understand that not all deals are perfect, and we don’t take the gains we wanted, but couldn’t get, lightly. We now must unite and move forward as a union.”

Two other things about the deal are worth noting. ESPN reported the salary cap for the 2020 season would increase to $198.2 million. And the new CBA forbids teams from using both the transition tag and franchise tag, as the old agreement did.

Owners met the players at the scouting combine in Indianapolis and agreed to minor changes in the document. The player representatives then voted 17-14 (with one abstention) to forward the new CBA to a vote.

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Shortly thereafter, some players began to balk about how the deal was originally negotiated. And there was a petition to allow some who had already voted to change their ballot. But that was rejected. Offensive lineman Russell Okung even filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith of acting illegally on behalf of the union.

“Vote is close because you had a group of people who certainly cared about certain issues in the collective bargaining agreement,” Smith said on the ESPN Daily podcast Monday.

“In a country where virtually no large company is certainly creating new pensions and certainly not increasing pensions, we are a large corporation in the United States that not only has secured pensions for another three, four generations of players, but also increased the pensions of every former player prior to 2011 and bringing them up to a 2011 standard for their pensions — those things are huge.”

Ultimately, the players who voted for the deal, conceding the 17-game schedule to approve the greater financial package.

“The leverage that we had now was strong, and it’s known leverage,” Smith said. “We know when the TV contracts expire. We know what the economy was projected to look like, and that was even before the things that have happened in the last 72 hours.

“I certainly hear people who say, ‘Look, you guys are going to have as much if not more leverage next year.’ Well the only thing I would say to that is, negotiating a deal where if the answer is ‘no’ that you find yourself out of work, I would argue that is less leverage than what we have now.”