Union, league preparing “war chests” for 2021 labor talks


ATLANTA (AP) – Two years before the labor agreement with the NFL runs out, the players’ union is gathering a war chest it hopes it doesn’t need.

Union leaders, however, expect a work stoppage in 2021, while not exactly inevitable, will be difficult to avoid.

“We feel good where we are, the lines we can draw,” NFL Players Association President Eric Winston said Thursday. “We feel good about the direction we have.”

Added DeMaurice Smith, who soon will mark 10 years as the union’s executive director: “It’s our job to prepare for wars we don’t want to fight.”

The league and union agreed on a 10-year deal in 2011 after a lockout lasted from mid-March until early August. The NFL reportedly is squirreling away funds from its broadcast deals in anticipation of a labor stalemate in 2021, and the NFLPA is using money from its highly profitable NFL Players Inc. arm to do the same.

“There are a limited number of options,” Smith said, “All of them except renegotiating a new deal are a pretty tough option.”

Winston, who after 12 seasons did not play in 2018 while attending the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, admitted he didn’t know much of the ins and outs of NFL labor eight years ago. He and the NFLPA’s executive board have made it a priority to instruct the current crop of players on being prepared for not collecting paychecks.

“Same as always to prepare guys, educated them and make sure they know what they are up against, understand the tactics used against them,” he said.

He mentioned financial literacy instruction – “you need to save money all the time” – and understanding the past, back beyond 2011 to other collective bargaining agreements and players’ strikes.

“We know almost everyone in 2021 were not in the league the last time (of a lockout). I think every player will believe us when we tell them they’re going to be locked out.”

No one in the union is closing the door on an early agreement, but optimism would not be applicable. Smith pointed to the 32 teams reworking coaches’ contracts to provide for a 2021 lockout. Winston mentioned such issues as legalized gambling, technology and injury reports as upcoming points of discussion.

The sides aren’t close to opening talks, particularly with no opt-out clause in this CBA. Nobody on the union side is sure when concrete negotiations might begin, so preparing for the possibility of a lockout or strike is paramount for the NFLPA and its members.

Asked about a provision in a new labor agreement for guaranteed contracts for players, Smith explained that’s not how things work in pro sports. Rather, individual players and their agents negotiate such stipulations in their deals.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins got such a deal from Minnesota last offseason as a free agent. The players hope it’s a harbinger, but it’s more likely a one-off.

“We would like to get to the point of much more standardization of player contracts,” Winston said. “None of those poison pills to steal away a player.”

Winston did indicate not every matter necessarily will be contentious as the two sides seek what he termed “a global solution.”

“Money always will be a major point,” he said, then sarcastically noted “we want 99 percent and they want us to have 0.1 percent. Where do we meet?

“But there might not be as big a bridge to build,” as in 2011. “But they look at the world one way, we look at the world another way. When people are ready they will get in a room and figure this thing out.”


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NFL Players Association President Eric Winston, left, talks with Executive Director DeMaurice Smith during a news conference at the media center for the NFL Super Bowl 53 football game Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)