DETROIT (Feb. 2, 2006) -- The NFL Players Association is preparing to take the league to court if there is no immediate progress on a new contract.
NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw set March 9 as the date he will begin consulting players on legal action if no deal has been reached to extend the collective bargaining agreement. Upshaw said the current stalemate is due more to a disagreement among the owners on revenue sharing than conflict between the league and the union.
The current contract expires after the 2007 season, but it calls for an uncapped year in '07. Without a new CBA, negotiations on individual contracts in the free-agent period that begins March 3 will be much more difficult for teams and players.
"The price of poker will go up," Upshaw said at the union's Super Bowl news conference. "We can not stay in the place where we are now."
The league and the owners have been negotiating for more than a year on an extension to the contract first agreed upon in 1993.
But this is the first time there has been a stalemate, primarily because of the dispute between high-revenue teams such as Washington, Dallas, Houston and New England, and teams with less local money available from items ranging from parking to stadium signage.
Upshaw insisted the union is prepared for decertification, which involves disbanding and going to antitrust court to ask for a set of rules under which the NFL would operate. The union did that to end the monthlong 1987 strike and played without a contract until 1992, when the court ruled in its favor -- leading to the current deal negotiated with commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the owners. That deal included free agency for the first time, as well as the salary cap, which took effect in 1993.
"We've demonstrated we are not afraid to decertify," Upshaw said. "We understand the laws and what's available to us."
Upshaw warned if the dispute continues through 2007, then the salary cap is likely to be gone -- for good.
Richard Berthelsen, the union's general counsel, said if the decertification strategy is used, it could keep the owners from locking out the players and allowing games to continue. "If there is no union, the labor laws would not apply, so you wouldn't have a lockout," he said.
Despite Upshaw's strong words, both sides believe privately that an agreement can be reached fairly soon.
Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney has helped settle NFL labor disputes for three decades. He said last week that while there was little movement in the dispute, he still is optimistic there could be action among the owners fairly soon.
Upshaw pointed out Thursday that the $24 billion television deal reached last year with CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN gives the networks incentive to help settle the dispute. And he quoted Denver owner Pat Bowlen as saying: "If we can't reach agreement, we should all be shot."
Still, some of the high-revenue owners have suggested they could live with a different system.
"It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if we didn't have a salary cap," Dallas' Jerry Jones said last fall.
At one point, Upshaw even joked about the high-revenue owners, notably Washington's Daniel Snyder, who has more than 20 coaches on his payroll, including some of the NFL's highest-paid assistants.
"They are going to have to decide how to spend their money if they're going to reach agreement among themselves," he said. "You might cut back on the coaches on your payroll. I love Dan Snyder because he spends a lot of money on players. But there are others in that high-revenue group who take in $300 million and have just a $66 million payroll."
Upshaw and Tagliabue always have had a good relationship during negotiations. Tagliabue, who turned 65 in November, has delayed his retirement in part to get the labor problems settled.
Negotiations are expected to intensify after the Super Bowl. Rooney, Upshaw and league officials have said they don't think there will be an agreement by the start of free agency next month. However, the issue is likely to be the primary topic among the owners at their annual meeting, which begins March 25 in Orlando, Fla.
That might allow for an agreement by the draft, which will take place a month later.
"Without an agreement after the draft, you would have a lot of unsigned players, a lot of first- and second-round draft picks who would be waiting to see what system we would be using," he said.
Upshaw also reiterated the healthy state of the sport: "We're not talking about a struggling industry here."
The Associated Press News Service
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