Answering key questions in the NFL labor front

NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith said he has a "great relationship" with commissioner Roger Goodell. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

TICK, TICK, TICK. Fifteen days and counting until the NFL's current collective bargaining agreement is scheduled to expire.

Fifteen days and counting for the players and owners to get something done before words like lockout and impasse and decertification and antitrust become bullets in a war that could result in the NFL's first work stoppage in 24 years.

As we wait for the clock to strike midnight on March 3, let's try to answer some of the key questions in this staredown:

What exactly is this about?

It's about one thing and one thing only: money. How to split a $9 billion revenue pie. The owners basically feel they got screwed in the last labor deal and want a new agreement that is more favorable to them. They say the current CBA is "unbalanced and one-sided," and have called it "an unsustainable business model."

What's the current revenue split?

The current CBA, which was signed in 2006, gave 60 percent of the league's total football revenue to the players. But the owners received $1 billion in credits off the top for stadium debt service. So it's essentially a 50-50 split of all revenue.

If the owners don't think that's fair, why did they agree to the deal in the first place?

A couple of reasons. First, at the time, they were deathly afraid of the salary cap going away, which was about to happen. So, they were willing to agree to player-friendly terms in exchange for the certainty of the cap. They have since learned that life without a cap wasn't as apocalyptic as they had feared. Second, there was a lot of pressure to get a new deal done as a going-away present for commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who had announced his retirement. The owners did insist on a clause that would allow them to opt out of the deal 2 years early. They exercised that option in 2008.

Was the 2006 deal really such a bad deal for the owners?

Depends on your definition of bad. The owners are making money, but they want to make more, a lot more. Especially owners like the Cowboys' Jerry Jones and the Jets' Woody Johnson and the Giants' John Mara and Steve Tisch, who built lavish new stadiums and now have huge debt services.

The construction cost of Lincoln Financial Field, which opened in 2003, was about $650 million, and the city and state picked up the tab for two-thirds of that. Eagles owner Jeff Lurie was able to finance most of his share through the league's G3 program, which allowed owners to repay as much as $150 million in construction costs with the visiting teams' share of club-seat revenue.

These days, the league no longer has the G3 program, there is little public money to be had, and stadiums like the ones in Arlington, Texas, and the Meadowlands cost more than three times more to build than the Linc.

In the past, the union shared in the cost of stadium construction by giving teams salary-cap credit for new buildings. But the union's new executive director, DeMaurice Smith, isn't as willing to do that as his predecessor, Gene Upshaw. Also, a lot of the stadiums that were built 10-15 years ago now need maintenance, and the owners want the union to help pay for that. "Anybody who owns a house knows it doesn't maintain itself," NFL executive vice president Jeff Pash said recently. "You've got to put money into it. You've got to improve it. You've got to keep it going."

While that's true, the reality is the owners, not the union, own the stadiums, and the players don't feel they should be expected to help foot the bill for things like new scoreboards and upgraded bathroom urinals.

What is this "financial transparency" the union keeps talking about?

The union basically has told the owners that if they're going to claim the current 50-50 split really is a bad deal for them, they need to prove it. Have each team open its books and show the players all of its costs so that they can see for themselves. The owners have told the players they already have access to more than enough financial information to prove that. Because the two sides share all revenue, the union has access to all of the league's revenue info. The union also has audit rights to all of the league's costs that are currently factored into the accounting of the current agreement.

So what else does the union want to see?

It would like to see team-by-team costs. Things like what a team pays its marketing and sales people and how much the owner's kid gets for whatever he does while waiting for his old man to keel over. It's information that the union doesn't really need, and it's information that the union isn't going to get. But it makes a nice sound bite for them. Unions have been trotting out the "show me your books" line for decades when management asks for givebacks.

What happens on March 4 if there's no agreement?

Well, on the off chance that the two sides actually are making progress toward an agreement, maybe nothing. The owners and players could agree to extend the current deal a couple of weeks while they continue to negotiate. But don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen. What likely will happen is that the owners will impose a lockout. The players would be barred from team training facilities. Offseason minicamps and OTAs would be canceled. Players wouldn't get roster and workout bonuses. If the lockout continued into the summer, training camps would be put on hold. So would free agency. The only thing that would go on as scheduled is the April draft. But teams wouldn't be able to sign the players they draft until the lockout is over, and they also wouldn't be able to sign undrafted rookies.

Do the owners have any other options?

Yeah. They can declare an impasse in negotiations, which would allow them to implement a new set of rules pending a new deal. That would put the ball back in the players' court, since they would have to decide whether to work under the owners' new rules or strike. But the owners would have to convince the National Labor Relations Board that there actually is an impasse, and that would be difficult since all the union would have to do is throw an occasional new proposal on the table to avoid an impasse.

What are the union's options if the owners implement a lockout?

NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith already has obtained the approval of the union's rank-and-file to decertify if it wants to go that route. That's what it did after the 1987 strike. By decertifying, the union essentially ceases to officially exist, which would allow the league to draw up its own rules for free agency, the draft, player salaries, et al, but also would allow the players to file an antitrust suit against the owners, charging that the 32 teams acted in concert to shut down the business of the league. A recent court verdict against the NFL in a case involving a company called American Needle ruled that the league's teams all are separate businesses and can't act in concert. The NFL has appealed that ruling.

One of the reasons often given for the NFL's labor harmony over the last two decades was the friendship between Paul Tagliabue and Smith's predecessor, Gene Upshaw. What kind of relationship do DeMaurice Smith and current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell have, and is it a help or hindrance to the negotiations?

Smith said during Super Bowl week that he has a "great relationship" with Goodell. If your definition of a great relationship is that they haven't given each other the finger yet, then yeah, I guess they have a great relationship. But the truth is, they have no real relationship and don't seem to want one. Most people feel that if Upshaw and Tagliabue still were around, there would be a new deal in place by now. But they're not and there isn't.

What happens with players like the Eagles' Brandon Graham, who are recovering from major injuries? Can they use the team's facilities and the team's trainers to help with their rehab if there's a lockout?

Nope. If there's a lockout, players are not allowed access to the team's training facilities, and the team's training staffs can't have any contact with them. They'll have to go to a private facility to rehab, just like you and me. The Eagles, though, have a NovaCare facility on site, and they're waiting for a clarification from the league to see if rehabbing players like Graham and Trent Cole and Nate Allen would be permitted to use that facility during a lockout.

Several teams, including the Eagles, have used the franchise tag on players this week. But the union claims the franchise tag will be meaningless if there's no new deal by March 4. What's up with that?

DeMaurice Smith was just trying to make an issue of something that already was obvious to everyone. If there's a lockout and free agency is put on hold, the franchise tag becomes meaningless until either there is a new deal or the union decertifies and the owners implement their own rules.

The owners want to extend the regular season to 18 games and reduce the preseason to two games. The players say that hell will freeze over before they agree to an 18-game season. Is it not a negotiable issue?

It most certainly is negotiable. While the players' concerns about the effect an extended season would have on their health and career expectancy are legitimate, the bottom line is that two more regular-season games would dramatically increase the league's revenue pie. In the end, money rules. For both sides. The owners will make it as palatable as possible by agreeing to things like cutting back on offseason training and shortening training camps and banning pads during regular-season practices and increasing roster sizes.

Are the owners sincere when they say the main reason they want to go to an 18-game regular season is because they care about the fans?

Of course not. For the better part of the last 30 years, they've made fans pay full price for four preseason games and haven't felt the slightest guilt. Now, suddenly, we're supposed to believe they're having trouble sleeping at night over that? Hardly. This is about greed. They're trying to squeeze every last revenue dollar they can out of America's love affair with pro football, and they know that by adding two more regular-season games, they're going to be able to gouge the hell out of the networks in the next TV deal.

Will there be a rookie wage scale if/when there is a new deal?

Absolutely. Both sides pretty much are in agreement on the absurdity of giving $20-$30 million in guaranteed money to unproven top-of-the-first-round guys who haven't played an NFL down. The key is agreeing on how the money that is saved by going to a rookie wage scale gets redistributed. The union has made a proposal that would save $200 million per draft class on rookie costs. It has proposed that $100 million of that go to former players and the other $100 million go to veteran players who have proven themselves. The owners don't like the math and would like to see some of that saved rookie money go back into their own pockets.

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