Did the NFLPA tip the balance of power back to NFL owners?

At the earlier stages of talks between the NFL and their Players Association, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith sent out the first warning shot about a potential work stoppage. In doing so, it’s clear he hit the panic button.

The NFL and the NFLPA have never seen eye to eye. After their last negotiation eight years ago, and with two years left before NFL fans begin to panic over the 2022 season, one has to wonder why the players’ union is so worried about a work stoppage.

Eight years ago, the players and owners were bickering and pointing fingers on how to split billions of dollars. The owners, as usual, wanted to keep as much of the loot as possible, while the players wanted more of their cash in guaranteed contracts. When they compromised, the salary cap increased significantly, and players made more money than ever before, basically creating a flag football practice regime during the regular season and limited contact with coaches in the off-season.

While I praise both sides for giving fans a 10-year deal, the results of the last Collective Bargaining Agreement can be seen on the field and in the stands with attendance at the lowest levels in years.

Now, the NFLPA believes the 2022 season is in jeopardy because the owners are unlikely to flinch as much as they did eight years ago. Thus, Smith sent out a letter to agents warning the apocalypse is coming.

Instead of rallying his troops and indicating the early discussions with the NFL seemed productive, Smith said, “We are advising players to plan for a work stoppage of at least a year in length.”

Further, he told agents to make sure their clients start putting money back in case part or all of the 2022 season is postponed or cancelled. To be fair, Smith is doing his job, but everyone has to remember he caters to the upper level of players. The deal he struck last time benefited more of the $100 million players versus the $1 million players.

That isn’t surprising, as that is the way the union has always been run, and until a Tom Brady type of player fights for the grunt guys, that’s never going to change under the current hierarchy of the NFLPA.

As you can accurately ascertain with the direction of this column, I’m not a fan of Smith. Yet he earns respect for taking as much as he did from the owners eight years ago, even though not all union members were happy with the path he took; he got a deal done that meant more money to his union and less practice time.

In taking that approach and getting the deal done, he made personal and public his battles with NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell.

Yet again he sent out the first shot across the bow in these talks. What Smith also failed to point out in his latest salvo was NFL general managers have been shortening long-term contracts with prized free agents with heavy cap cache in 2020 and 2021. Unlike Smith, they see the big picture, and the last thing NFL GMs need is to carry a cash-heavy salary cap into the 2022 season.

As we stand in 2019, the early talks appear to be encouraging, but that doesn’t mean anything will get done until the two sides hit zero hours. Unlike their counterparts at Major League Baseball, the NFL is far more worried about bettering the players in the upcoming talks than striking a better deal that helps both current and past players.

Smith knows the owners control all the purse strings, and the billionaires didn’t get that rich for making more bad deals than great ones. Still, as I matriculate towards my conclusion and prediction for their latest family feud, it was far too early for Smith to play this hand.

Players already understand the NFL is a business, and a work stoppage isn’t just likely, it’s part of the fabric of the league. If you accept the responsibility of taking money from the owners, you are subject to losing some of that coin over the gap in unwanted unemployment. To combat Smith’s warnings; that’s why agents began collecting tens of millions in guarantees and signing bonus for this very situation.

In summary, there was enough upheaval over Smith’s handling of the talks last time around that some people who viewed the deal lessened his power in the union. Some players were upset the deal catered to the elite players. Adding that with his unwillingness to assist older players, who literally put their lives on the line with injuries and concussions for decades, tells me he’s not confident he can break the owners’ resolve in 2022.

For the owners who are kicking the tires on making the game more global and contemplating taking all their TV properties in house and creating the ultimate pay per view event 17 weeks per year, hold every card in these talks and will do so twelve years from now.

As long as fans are willing to spend thousands of dollars per year attending games, purchasing NFL apparel and renewing their NFL Sunday Ticket every season, the players once again will grab all the morsels the owners give them in the upcoming talks.

So, will there be a work stoppage as Smith declared? Not likely, but I don’t see both sides getting this done until zero hours in the spring of 2021. After all, the NFL loves its drama and this is good theater.

Nick Athan covers the NFL for Fan Source. Follow him on Twitter: @chiefsinsider.

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