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What happens if NFLPA rejects current proposal?

If there were any doubt before today (and there shouldn’t have been), the ball is now on the tee for the NFL Players Association. The question is whether they’ll kick it, or whether they’ll punt.

If the players reject the proposal (and NFLPA Executive Committee member Richard Sherman seems to be strongly against it), what happens next?

The statement issued by the NFL on Thursday suggests that, if there’s no deal before the start of the new league year, there will be no deal this year at all. Which means that the two sides will revisit a possible deal when the current deal expires, after the 2020 season.

And that’s when it could take a serious turn, with the league following one of two paths. First, the league could do what it did in 2011, locking out the players and waiting for them to accept the best offer (whatever it may be) on the eve of players losing real money. (The union would potential disclaim interest again, setting up another antitrust lawsuit against the league for the rules that would be put in place by 32 independent businesses that would lose the benefit of the exemption that comes from having a shared, unionized workforce.)

Second, the league could simply take the last, best offer made before the two sides reach impasse and implement it, forcing the players either to operate under those terms or to go on strike.

This time around, that could be the approach. And the problem for the players is that the last, best offer made by the league before impasse in 2021 could be worse than the offer currently on the table, especially if the league ends up with less favorable TV deals due to the lack of labor peace, reduced TV ratings in 2020, and/or a potential recession.

So even if some don’t like the current deal, the question becomes what would the best deal be in 2021? And what would the league do to get what it wants?

By next year, the league may decide to peel back the percentage of revenue that the players get and to alter other terms. Indeed, some owners still want to go straight to 18 games; maybe the last, best offer prior to impasse will include two extra regular-season games, not one.

The bottom line remains this: Unless and until players are willing to abandon the game for a year and the compensation that goes along with it, they’ll never have truly equal bargaining power when staring down owners who have more than enough money to finance their lifestyles even if the league shuts down for a full season or longer. The strike of 1987 and the lockout of 2011 serve only to bolster the belief that the players collectively and individually won’t take a stand and stick to it.

If, in the end, the league opts to implement the last best offer in lieu of a lockout and the players go on strike, we already know what will happen. The NFL will hire replacement players, those replacement players (all of whom will have played college football) will don the colors and the logos and the uniforms and the game will continue until the regular players cross the picket line, accepting the best offer that would be available at the time.

That’s why NFLPA leadership has negotiated directly with the league the best possible deal the union currently can get from management. Even if the players individually and collectively would shout down the idea now, the reality is that the bulk of the players won’t be inclined to miss game checks or opportunities to play football via lockout or strike. Throw in the fact that now is the best time to parlay a new 10-year CBA into the biggest TV contracts ever signed by a professional sports league — contracts that could shrink with the passage of time — and it makes plenty of sense to do a deal now.

It only makes sense to say “no” to a deal now if the players can commit right now to enduring a lockout or staging a strike digging in, for a full season or maybe two. History tells us that it won’t happen; the players will have to be willing to dramatically alter that history (and to give up a full year of football and the money that goes along with it) to persuade the owners otherwise and to force a deal better than the deal currently on the table.