GRAPEVINE, Texas (March 7, 2006) -- The extension of the NFL's labor agreement is now up to the owners. That's exactly what the players have been expecting all along.
The owners began meeting Tuesday at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport to vote whether to accept the latest proposal given them by the NFL Players Association. But to make it financially acceptable, they will have to agree first among themselves on expanded revenue sharing, just what Gene Upshaw, the union's executive director, has been saying in more than a year's worth of talks.
Still, this is the first time it has come up during these negotiations.
"I think it's playing out exactly like we thought it would," said Kevin Mawae, the New York Jets' union representative until he was cut March 4 by the Jets. "We said as a union that in order for free agency to go off without a hitch, the owners would have to figure out how to divide up the revenue. It's not necessarily the percentage that we're asking but how they spread the wealth."
There was an early note of optimism as the executive committee of the NFL's Management Council -- the owners' committee that deals with labor issues -- began bargaining. It came from an unlikely source: Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who has been strongly opposed to additional revenue sharing.
"We want to play football," Jones said as he entered the meeting. "We have an obligation to everyone, particularly our fans.
"My gut is we're going to come up with something, but it's still up in the air. It's going to be long and drawn out and tough."
The contract doesn't run out for another two years, though this will be the last one with a salary cap. Without an agreement, there will be no cap next year, allowing teams to spend as much as they want. But there also will be no minimum figure for expenditures, which could lead to the kind of imbalance with high-revenue and low-revenue teams as in such sports as baseball and European soccer.
Low-revenue teams such as Buffalo, Cincinnati and Indianapolis say high-revenue teams -- Dallas, Washington and Philadelphia, for instance -- should contribute proportionately to the player pool because they can earn far more in nonfootball income such as advertising and local radio rights. Those high-revenue teams might contribute only 10 percent of their outside money compared with 50 percent or more for low-revenue teams.
Mawae, who said he is looking forward to joining another team when oft-delayed free agency begins March 9, is one of many players who could be out of work if the owners turn down the proposal and leave the salary cap for 2006 at $94.5 million. If they approve the proposal, the cap could be as much as $10 million higher.
A number of endangered veterans have redone their contracts, as linebacker Derrick Brooks did with Tampa Bay on March 6, ensuring he will stay with the team for whom he has starred for 11 seasons. But Isaac Bruce, a star for the St. Louis Rams for a decade, was released and so was 37-year-old Junior Seau, who has been injured most of the last two seasons with Miami.
The union's request is for 60 percent of total league revenues.
On March 6, Jones reiterated that he is opposed to revenue sharing. But he also sounded like a man who knows he might end up in the minority.
"I'm not happy with the proposal. I didn't think that we would be entertaining the kinds of propositions that we got from the players. I'm not happy with it at all," he said. "As you well know, I don't think anyone particularly cares how happy I am."