Smith and several players have said many times over the past two years that they believe owners intend to lock them out in 2011 in order to secure a more owner-favorable labor deal. Negotiations on the new deal have been slow, and concerns about a lockout continue to mount, but the one issue that has seemed to fire up the owners’ side is their idea to expand the regular season to 18 games.
The owners’ initial proposal in June included proposed adjustments to roster size, changes to the injured reserve rule and the creation of a developmental league to help compensate for the loss of preseason games that offer a chance to evaluate young players. The league says its motivation is fan discontent over the low quality of preseason games.
“Our position is that the status quo for the game and fans is not acceptable as far as playing four preseason games” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Tuesday. “We have to improve the quality of what we are presenting to fans.”
The union countered in November, outlining its demands in exchange for the expansion of the regular season. The players want to reduce the number of voluntary off-season workout weeks from 14 to five, reduce the amount of contact and the number of full-pad practices in training camp, add a bye week, expand rosters, change the pension rules to allow them to qualify more quickly and, of course, see increased compensation in exchange for more work. Talk about these issues, the players have said, and we’ll talk about two more games.
But so far, it sounds as if the owners haven’t been willing to talk enough about the players’ many concerns.
“The safety of the players should be the No. 1 thing,” Broncos safety Brian Dawkins said. “And I don’t think two more games is going to help guys have longer careers. I just don’t see it happening.”
Dawkins and Vrabel took questions for a half-hour, addressing several issues dealing with the CBA talks and the potential for a lockout. They said players are asking lots of questions about whether they’ll lose their health insurance in March if there’s a lockout. They will, and the league’s response has been that they will be COBRA-eligible and therefore shouldn’t worry. But many players are concerned about high COBRA costs, which is why their side might be more motivated to get a deal done by March than would be the owners, who wouldn’t see losses until games start getting canceled. Still, Vrabel and Dawkins say the players they talk to are unified and engaged in the dispute.
“Guys want to be prepared if we’re not going to be playing football,” Vrabel said. “They want to know if they’re doing the right things with their money, if they’re saving two paychecks at the end of the year, will that be enough. They want to share with us that their bodies couldn’t take two more games. They’re very engaged. The players are now the messengers, and it’s everyone on the team, not just the player reps.”
That will be critical if the union has any hope of holding together through these negotiations. If the owners are planning a lockout (and the players do have some pretty good evidence that they are), they’re counting on the union to crack. The union says it won’t this time, but there’s a long way to go until we find out. It’s possible that their shared disgust at the idea of subjecting their bodies to two more NFL football games every year could be what galvanizes them in the end.