ATLANTA -- NFL owners voted unanimously Tuesday to end their labor agreement with the players' union in 2011. The league and union, however, insisted the next three seasons won't be interrupted by a contract dispute and both sides are working toward a new deal.
"We have guaranteed three more years of NFL football," commissioner Roger Goodell said after the owners used the opt-out clause built into the agreement signed more than two years ago. "We are not in dire straits. We've never said that. But the agreement isn't working, and we're looking to get a more fair and equitable deal."
The decision by the owners was anticipated, although not this early. The 2006 agreement allowed either side to negate the contract by Nov. 8, 2008. Goodell said the owners acted early "to get talks rolling."
"I don't think it was a shock to anyone," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association.
Upshaw said he learned of the move by e-mail from Goodell. The union head said his response was: "Thanks, what a surprise."
"All this means is that we will have football now until 2010 and not until 2012," Upshaw added during a conference call. "We will move ahead. This just starts the clock ticking. If we can't reach agreement by 2010, then we go to no man's land, which is 2011."
The agreement signed two years ago was to last until 2013 with the option to terminate in 2011, which is what the owners did Tuesday. League officials and owners, including several who helped push through the last deal, have been saying for almost a year that while the previous contract may have been too beneficial to the owners, the current one had swung too far toward the players.
The owners noted that they are paying $4.5 billion to players this year, just under 60 percent of their total revenues as specified in the 2006 agreement. League revenues are estimated at about $8.5 billion, although none of the teams except the publicly-owned Green Bay Packers discloses figures.
The owners also want a change in the system to distribute a higher percentage of player salaries more to veterans than to unproven rookies. Their argument is based on a disparity in salaries that leaves them spending far more on unproven rookies than on dependable veterans.
For example, offensive tackle Jake Long, taken first in the 2008 NFL Draft last month, got a $30 million guaranteed before playing an NFL game. David Diehl, a fifth-round pick in 2003 who has started every game of his career and played left tackle for the New York Giants in their Super Bowl victory, signed a six-year, $31 million extension with less than half of that guaranteed.
Upshaw made his argument in a half-hour conference call that ended a few minutes before Goodell made his statements in a news conference.
The debate will continue in negotiations and through the media over a course of months and years. Both conceded there might be no agreement until the deadline, which Upshaw suggested might not happen until the winter of 2010. That would be a year without a salary cap under terms of the deal.
"We'd like to get things done," Goodell said. "But often it's not until you have a deadline that people realize the consequences of not reaching a deal."
Upshaw added: "March of 2010 -- that's what we see as the realistic deadline. I'm not going to sell the players on a cap again. Once we go through the cap, why should we agree to it again?"
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press