ATLANTA -- Let's be honest: the NFL did more than produce a proposed settlement to end the lockout, open training camps and put the 2011 season back on track. It put the squeeze on players, telling them to respond -- or else.
Or else what? Draw your own conclusions. The league already canceled the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame Game. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if players don't ratify the proposed deal, other contest cancellations will follow -- with substantial consequences to the revenues both sides share.
So the message is clear: Do something and do it now.
"Hopefully, we can all work quickly, expeditiously and get this agreement done," commissioner Roger Goodell said. "It is time to get back to football. That is what everybody here wants to do long-term.
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"We have crafted an agreement that can be good for the game of football, good for the players, good for the clubs and, most importantly, good for our game and our fans. We are anxious to get back to football and, hopefully, the development of the NFLPA the next few days will ensure that."
Ah, there's the catch. There is no players union. Not yet, there isn't. And to ratify a new deal, there must be one. So players have to agree to recertify, then vote to accept the deal they've just been offered.
The NFL insists there's no deadline, but look at the calendar it proposed -- owners want to open training camps and start the new year July 27, which means players have less than a week to make the next move.
Only it’s less than that. While owners said they would welcome players back to camps Saturday, allowing them to attend voluntary training, conditioning and classroom instruction, they will do so only if the NFLPA’s executive board approves the proposed settlement by then. If not, no doors are opened.
Another source said players have until next Tuesday to show evidence that they have enough votes to recertify as a union, a precursor to approving a deal. Then they have another three days -- meaning next Friday -- to renegotiate language from the proposal with which they disagree.
Bottom line: "Time is of the essence," as Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay said Thursday. Owners acted so decisively that players contend they were given more than a proposed agreement to review; they got a proposed CBA.
Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is that the pressure now is squarely on them. They said they want to return to playing. They said they want to reach a settlement. They said they want the lockout lifted. Well, this just in: Owners will do all that ... but only according to the negotiated proposal they just revealed.
And if players don't sign off on it? Well, I think you can follow the bread crumbs. The lockout remains in effect, the cold war resumes and games are in danger of getting canceled.
"I'm confident that players and teams arrived at a good place," said Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, head of the owners' labor committee. "It's a fair and balanced agreement."
That's his opinion. The players have theirs, and, guess what? It's the players who matter now. Because without their approval, the 2011 season remains on hold.
Owners here can't imagine that happening, but then I don't think they could have imagined negotiators spending 2½ hours before Thursday's meeting poring over every page of a several hundred with player representatives.
They also didn't imagine player rep and former NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith making a last-minute request for an opt-out to the 10-year deal, a contingency similar to the one that allowed owners to abrogate their 2006 agreement with players two years later.
Nevertheless, two sources told me Smith asked, and, hey, it's a free country. You can't blame him for asking. Still, owners thought that issue was resolved long ago -- and now, according to their proposal, it is. If this labor agreement goes into effect, there would be labor peace through the 2020 season.
"I can't say we got everything we wanted out of this deal," said New York Giants co-owner and president John Mara. "I'm sure they would probably say the same thing. And usually when that happens, you say that's a fair deal ... and I firmly believe this is a fair deal. I think the best thing about it is that our fans don't have to hear about labor/management relations for 10 years."
Nope, the best thing is that we finally have someone making a move toward ending the lockout. But it takes two to dance, and this tango doesn't start without the players' acceptance -- and initial returns weren't encouraging. Let's just say they don't view the owners' latest move as the "fair and balanced" proposal that Richardson does, even though owners insisted the players and their negotiators signed off on most of it already.
He’s right about that last part. The focus no longer is on the owners; it’s the players who hold centerstage now, and the NFL made it clear it won’t wait long for their response.
"There's an urgency to this," Goodell said. "We want to have a full 2011 season, and we're up against the wall."
Players might tell you they're up against the wall too, and you know something? They are. Owners came here determined to ratify a proposed deal, and they did it -- though few imagined it would take the time and bring on the last-minute headaches that Thursday delivered. Nevertheless, when a vote was needed, owners showed their support for the plan by backing it 31-0, with only the Oakland Raiders abstaining -- the first tangible sign that football is back to normal.
Only it's not back to business. Not yet. Not until we've heard from the other side, and owners just made sure we will. They acted. Now it's up to the players to respond and respond quickly.
"That process is within their control, and the timing is within their control," NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said.
So is the immediate future of the NFL. Because if players don't reach an agreement -- if they don't vote to recertify or don't approve the proposed deal -- we have a real problem. It wouldn't just be negotiations that would resume; hostilities would follow, with players wondering why they can't return to work and fans wondering why they can't watch them play.
They can -- if players sign off on this, which is why the heat is on.
"We believe and expect that we will have a fully approved and ratified agreement on a timely basis," Pash said. "We believe that it works for both sides. We believe that the agreement that has been negotiated, which is long and complicated and detailed, was negotiated in good faith and with the intention of ratifying it.
"I can't imagine DeMaurice is electing to pay all those hours for his attorneys to negotiate an agreement that he and his membership then decide not to ratify. We expect that we will have a ratified agreement and that we will open the new league year around the schedule we outlined. If that doesn't happen we will have to consider what to do next.
"For now, the reality is that we have an agreement. It's a good agreement, and we expect it will be ratified, we believe it will be ratified on a timely basis and, if something else happens, we will have to adjust to it."
Something else will happen. We just don't know what. The players are on the clock.