CBA Primer, Part Two

Here is part one of this series on the NFL and NFLPA negotiations towards a new agreement (CBA).

This week, the NFLPA continued its message to agents and players to continue to save money, while the NFL publicly announced refunds to games lost due to a potential work stoppage. There was a glimmer of hope, though, as the union indefinitely delayed a potential collusion claim for the lack of free agent activity this past offseason.

With that, let’s get back to the issue at hand – the negotiation of a new NFL CBA -- and the issues at hand.

Taking a cue from David Letterman, here are – in multiple parts - the Top Ten Issues in the NFL Labor Negotiations to prevent a lockout in 2011, starting with issues 10 and 9:

10. Retired players

This is one issue on which both sides agree, both for altruistic reasons and for their own public relations reasons. There is a mutual desire to address older players often dealing with physical and mental challenges from their time in the NFL, albeit with different groups involved.

The NFL has made a point of publicizing its programs aiding the physically and mentally infirm, from its joint replacement program to its Plan 88 -- named after NFL legend John Mackey -- aiding former players with dementia.

The NFL’s in-house efforts are led by George Martin. They have espoused the promise that no benefits for retired players will be negatively affected in 2011 with a lockout (contrasting to benefits for active players, which will disappear).

The NFLPA has its own retired player arm, headed jointly by former players Nolan Harrison and Cornelius Bennett. It has proposed that the NFL use money saved in benefits this season -- about $320 million, or $10 million per team -- towards retired players, a proposal entitled the Legacy Fund. That offer has not been accepted.

DeMaurice Smith prefers using the term “former players” rather than retired players, noting the time between being an active and a former player is often the time of a phone call from a team. Smith also invited former players to the NFLPA annual meetings. Both the league and the union are seeking the hearts and minds of this group.

Smith is trying to distinguish himself from Gene Upshaw, known to be indifferent to the problems of retired players. Smith’s challenge, as Upshaw’s, is to convince active players to slice off part of their pie to go to those who preceded them. That is an internal struggle that the NFL is not a part of.

Forecast: Both sides agree to increase their funding to retired or former players, the level of which to be determined. Funding will come from different sources, among them savings from rookie spending. This will be one of the easiest issues to resolve. As noted above, the differences that the two sides may have, especially the union, may be more internal than with the other side.

9. Player safety

The issue of concussions and brain trauma – which encompasses the violent hits that were front and center this year -- has become mainstream discussion in football now, thanks to increased awareness due to a variety of factors. A year ago, Congress shamed NFL leadership in comparing them to the tobacco industry! Those comments stung and resonated, forcing action by the league.

New concussion guidelines were issued last year and, in a gesture to the NFLPA, the NFL fired its medical director on the issue, Dr. Ira Casson, a staunch defender of the premise that there was no long-term brain loss of function from repeated concussions.

The NFL has now taken the safety issue a step further, ratcheting up enforcement of head-to-head collisions in protecting the business of the game (its marketable offensive star players) and having cover in the case a catastrophic event such as paralysis.

The issue of player safety bubbled up again in the offseason with the overzealous use of OTAs (Organized Team Activities), a pet peeve issue of Upshaw, resulting in the loss of days or weeks from four teams. The offseason activity calendar is much in play with another issue here, the game-changing issue of the 18-game season.

Also, NFL fine money is now increasingly allocated towards research for improving equipment for the safety of players as well.

The NFLPA has to be careful when players such as James Harrison – now fined $125,000 of his 2010 salary of $755,000, or 17% -- and Troy Polamalu question the league’s enforcement of these hits. This is a divisive issue that many offensive players support. Like the rookie contract issue, this could divide the players, never a good thing for presenting a united front in bargaing.

Forecast: Both sides agree to improved enforcement and curtailment of offseason activity (this will be part of the 18-game season resolution as well). There will continue to be independent neurological testing and more investment in research towards safer equipment design. There will be added input from the player group working on this issue, with their findings incorporated into the league’s position on the issue.

The NFL and NFLPA jointly agreed in August to have on-field discipline appeals heard by Art Shell and Ted Cottrell, who are NFL employees. The NFL will also consider adding a player representative to a panel that issues discipline -- and hears appeals -- for on-field collisions.

Further, there will be more clarification over the offseason of the application of fines and suspension over hits. Changing the enforcement of the rules in the middle of the season was difficult for players, coaches and officials.

Issues up next in the series: Drug-testing and bonus recovery (Haynesworth, anyone?)

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