What’s holding up the vote

DeMaurice Smith the Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association speaks during the NFLPA press conference on January 30, 2020 at the Miami Beach Convention Center in Miami Beack, FL.

Rich Graessle | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

DeMaurice Smith, the National Football League Player Association’s executive director, is caught in the middle of union politics surrounding the proposed collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which top NFL stars have rejected.

Currently, the new proposal is with the NFLPA’s body, consisting of more than 1,500 players, with the union’s annual meetings next week in Miami. League officials have told CNBC the union would like to make the votes official by then, as both parties would prefer to the deal ratified with NFL owners meetings to close the month.

But with star players like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers publicly giving a thumbs down along with fears of misinformation circulating throughout players, the NFLPA appears to be divided which one labor attorney said threatens Smith’s future as director. 

“I think this contract endangers him,” Donald S. Prophete said, a partner for the Kansas City-based Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete law firm who has worked on CBAs and is familiar with the new terms of the NFL’s CBA.

What’s the holdup?

It’s been nearly one week since team owners approved the proposal for a 10-year CBA, which was sent to the NFLPA, and delayed due to the union’s executive committee voting 6-5 against recommending to the board, which is made of the 32 player representatives.

Three people with knowledge of the CBA negotiations told CNBC one of the holdups centered around the new 17-game format capped at $250,000 for players. After a meeting at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last week, owners agreed to drop the game’s maximum, leading to the NFLPA’s board to vote 17-14-1 to send to the union’s body.

Under the new terms, players will receive 47% of league revenue, which the Wall Street Journal reported amounted to roughly $16 billion over the last year. The share increases to 48% in 2021, and 48.5% if a 17th regular season game is added. The projected payout would be $5 billion to players throughout the 10-year deal, according to the new terms.

Top stars like Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Rodgers both used Twitter to explain their reasons before for rejecting the deal. The lack of communication inside of the NFLPA went public when NFLPA president Eric Winston said Wilson was misinformed after implying the CBA was being rushed. Media experts said owners want to force a deal with players in efforts to start working on renegotiating NFL media rights.

Other terms of the proposal include an increase in the minimum salary for players on a club’s active or inactive roster to a starting point of roughly $600,000, up from $510,000 expected in 2020 if no new deal is signed. Players would then see an additional $105,000 added in the 2021 season, and annual increases of $45,000 for the remainder of the CBA.

The people said star players’ real concern isn’t about offseason workload or work environment issues. However, the lack of increased revenue and some players still want a 50-50 split of league revenue.

“It’s not going to happen,” said Prophete. “The owners are not going to pay them anymore. The owners will not go above 48.5%; it will never happen. It’s never going to be 50-50. We will not be alive to see that.”

Fearing bad information would be spread among players, the NFLPA used its annual gathering with agents in a private room to hold an information session, making sure the reps could explain what the proposal meant to their clients.

Smith also held a small media session outside of the meeting inside of a ballroom at the Indianapolis Convention Center, where he publicly approved of star players sharing their CBA concerns.

The NFLPA did not respond to requests for comment.

“The stars want all the money,” Prophete said. “The guys who are doing all the grunt work, that you can’t win without want a little bit of the pie. But the stars have all the power – they have the voice. He’s got to walk a fine line to be able to accomplish good things for all.”

With the approval to finalize this new CBA so divided, Prophete said Smith, who was criticized in the last round of CBA talks in 2011, could be nearing his end end as NFLPA director. 

According to sources familiar with the situation, both owners and the NFLPA favored new terms for retired players, which is considered the most favorable package in the league’s CBA history.

And the NFL will get its 17th game, which included extra postseason contests. But CBS reported the league would prefer 18 regular-season games, which would increase the valuation of its media rights.

The future fight

If Smith is still the director, he may be forced to negotiate two more significant issues continuing to make rounds among NFLPA meetings: Fully guaranteed contracts and lifetime benefits, usually sought by retired payers. Team owners are opposed to the inclusion of both terms in any CBA.

The people said the NFLPA has attempted to explain to players how NFL contracts are negotiated compared to other leagues to no avail. Players still use the National Basketball Association as an example, failing to realize the NBA technically doesn’t include language in its CBA that guarantees deals with the exception of rookie contracts, according to the people.

Though it was presumed by front offices and agents that NBA contracts will be guaranteed, especially transactions for superstar players, language still needs to be written into agreements, and not all NBA players have fully guaranteed contracts. 

“It’s a myth,” one NBA agent told CNBC about the perception that all NBA contracts are fully guaranteed while pointing to the two leagues salary cap is structured differently, with the NBA operating on a soft cap with, significant tax penalties for exceeding, while the NFL is a hard cap.

The NFLPA’s rocky relationship with agents is to blame, as the people said union officials believe players aren’t properly educated on NFL contracts, which can be fully guaranteed, and rookie deals are usually guaranteed.

Priority Sports and Entertainment, founded by respected sports agent Mark Bartelstein, represents Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. When the agency did his three-year contract in 2018, they negotiated a fully guaranteed deal. According to Spotrac.com, Cousins’ $84 million deal is the highest active guaranteed contract in the NFL.

Asked what occurs to the NFL business model should the league guarantee all deals for 2,000 players, Prophete said it would be “extremely” expensive, questioning who would be responsible for the bill.

But though the NFLPA once again appears in disarray, and top stars publicly grumbling, the people said both league and union officials believe the CBA proposal will be approved, and possibly before the NFLPA’s annual meetings next week in Miami.

“For them not to sign this and to risk a lockout – you never make that money up as a player,” Prophete said. “This is a good contract. They need to sign this contract and then think about 2031.”

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