There's a lot of talk about an NFL lockout next month, and, quite frankly, that's a problem. There's just too much talk and not enough action for a settlement to take place in the next three weeks.
That doesn't mean one can't happen. It just means one isn't likely.
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So then what? Well, then you pick a Major League Baseball team to follow, bone up on labor law and settle in for a long offseason -- with no minicamps, no training camps, no OTAs, no nothing until the NFL and NFL Players' Association produce a new collective bargaining agreement.
Don't ask me when that happens. Don't ask them, either. They can't even decide on the next meeting. But we can try to figure out what all of this means for you, me and, most important, the 2011 NFL season. So let's get started.
1. What are the chances of a work stoppage by March 4?
They're so good that a high-profile agent and a GM each told me they envision CBA talks going into mid-to-late summer before they're resolved. One guy said August. The other, September. The point is that both believe a work stoppage -- with a lockout the most likely scenario -- seems inevitable. I said "seem" because I never say never. The 2006 talks seemed dead, too, until last-minute maneuvering and extensions provided a deal that lasted until now. People on the inside tell me the next week-to-10 days will determine what happens, but my guess is that what happens is nothing. So let's just say the chances of a work stoppage are high. Very, very high.
2. Any chance of an extension to the deadline?
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3. What are the implications of a union decertification?
Now this is where it could get interesting. You can't lock out a union if there's no union, right? By decertifying, the NFL Players Association would become a group of non-union workers, with the league compelled to implement new rules governing acquisitions, the draft and players' salaries. Suffice it to say that the move would provoke litigation. In fact, it already has. The NFL on Monday filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union, alleging that it is not bargaining in good faith because of plans to decertify. The union last season gained approval from every team to decertify but hasn't said whether it plans to exercise that option. If the NFLPA were to follow through, it no longer would serve as the negotiating body for players but could avert a lockout. One problem: If the union were to decertify, in all likelihood it would file an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. But if it lost, players would be in worse shape than they are now.
4. How long can a work stoppage last before the regular season is affected?
My guess is sometime in early-to-mid-August, and here's why: Teams will have to be pulled together on the fly. They must sign and re-sign players, stage training camps, play preseason games, formulate rosters, formulate strategies and, basically, overcome six months of inactivity before we get to a regular season. But let's not concentrate on the front end of the schedule. The NFL can and will sacrifice regular-season games if necessary as it did in the strike-truncated 1982 and 1987 seasons. Pay attention, instead, to the back end -- more specifically, the Super Bowl -- and work forward. You don't have much flexibility with Super Bowl dates. The bye before the Super Bowl gives you one weekend you can use, but that's about it. You can't keep pushing back and back because Indianapolis, site of Super Bowl XLVI, has hotels and venues locked into place for Super Bowl week ... and right now that week is Jan. 30-Feb. 5.
5. How many games would the league be willing to sacrifice?
In 1982 the NFL played nine regular-season games and held a playoff tournament, with the Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl. One big difference: That was a year in which there was a players' strike, initiated after the start of the regular season. In all likelihood, this would be a lockout initiated in March. So there would have been no training camps. No rosters would be fixed. No free agents signed. No players cut. No preseason games played. No regular season games played. In short, there would be nothing, meaning it would take at least 3-4 weeks to get teams in order. In 1982, games resumed one week after a 57-day strike, but rosters were in place, and training camps had been held. Heck, regular season games had been played. That's not the case here. This is unchartered terrain, with both sides unsure what happens if a work stoppage goes deep into the summer. All I know is that the NFL had a nine-game season in 1982, and it counted. So you might want to use that as your baseline. It also had a postseason tournament of 16 participants that was devised especially for the strike-shortened season, and it had a Super Bowl that went off without a hitch because the NFL pushed its playoffs into the bye week before Super Bowl XVII.
6. You mention player signings. Is that really a big deal?
You tell me. There would be well over 1,000 players who must be signed before teams start playing again, and I'm talking about almost 500 unrestricted free agents, an estimated 200 restricted and exclusive free agents, over 230 draft picks and roughly 400 undrafted players. Before you assemble a roster, you better sign your players. And tell me how you compress that into, say, a week to 10 days. You don't. Bottom line: Yes, it is a big deal.
7. Kobe Bryant said he's open to the option of playing in Europe if there's an NBA lockout. In lieu of a settlement, can NFL players seek employment elsewhere -- like the CFL?
Yes. But if they're under contract they must return to the NFL once there's an agreement. If they are unrestricted free agents there are no limitations, but they are then subject to CFL rules -- signing contracts that may prohibit their returns until specified dates. Also, keep this in mind: Anyone who goes to the CFL risks injury. If and when that player returns to the NFL he could be put on the reserve/non-football-injury list. So players can go ... but at their own risk.
8. What player transactions can take place during a work stoppage?
None, but there will be a three-day draft in late April. Now, while there are no trades of players allowed during a work stoppage, teams are permitted to trade draft picks. That is, I can deal my second rounder, say, for Team A's third-and-fourth-round choices. But I cannot deal a player I drafted for someone another club chose.
9. Is an 18-game season negotiable?
Yes. In fact, executive vice president of labor/league counsel Jeff Pash indicated as much at the Super Bowl, saying that, "We have not drawn a line in the sand on 18 games or anything else. Realistically, it's an easier deal to make, but it's not the only deal to make." OK, only there's just too much talk about it not to believe it won't happen or, at worst, wouldn't be used as leverage. The league won't impose something players don't want, and they don't want 18 regular-season games -- not, that is, without significant compensation. So find out what that compensation is, see if there's a middle ground, then make a decision. The NFL is sold on the idea that a four-game preseason doesn't work, one reason commissioner Roger Goodell keeps pumping the 18-game format. But players understandably are worried about the risk of increased injuries, and they're opposed. Nevertheless, I didn't hear executive director DeMaurice Smith rule out the possibility of 18 games at the Super Bowl. What I heard is someone who is philosophically opposed but might be willing to deal. And in case you're wondering, no, the idea of 16 regular-season games and two preseason contests won't fly. Why? Easy: Money. Fewer games means less money for players and less for owners, one reason Goodell said, "The status quo is unacceptable" at his annual Super Bowl news conference.
10. Is the urgency to settle less after the deadline passes?
Probably, only you have a lot of players who start missing March bonus checks. That may not be a factor immediately, but it will as time goes on. Remember, the last time there was a work stoppage, players crossed the picket line. I guarantee you that owners remember, and you can't tell me they don't think players will cave because history says they will. And have. Both sides will lose money. We all know that. But who has more resources to withstand a prolonged work stoppage? I think you know the answer, and so do these two sides. "The uncertainty about a labor agreement will have a clear and cumulative effect on our revenues," said Pash. "As our revenues are affected in a negative way it obviously makes it harder not to reach an agreement. It makes the work stoppage ... if one occurs ... more costly. That's a cost that will impede the negotiation process." Bottom line: If we get to March without an agreement get ready to hunker down.