A 17-game season will make NFL players richer. So why has it split the league? | Sport

The NFL and NFL Players Association ratified a new collective bargaining agreement this week, guaranteeing 10 more years of labor peace. The new CBA fell out of the news cycle as the wonderfully oxymoronic “legal tampering” period kicked off on Monday, but what the two parties formalized over the weekend represents the biggest overhaul the league has seen in decades. Most notably: the addition of a 17th regular-season game and an expansion of the playoffs.

Why is the NFL increasing to a 17-game season?

Money! Isn’t that the explanation for everything? Adding the 17th game, as well as expanding the postseason, allows the NFL to negotiate its broadcast packages, as well as churn out more matchday revenue and up its ticket sales.

It’s still unclear how the league will balance home and away scheduling with an odd number of games, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know. The leaks and counter leaks from the 10-month negotiation focused on whether or not the owners would be able to force through extra games – a full gameweek plus two additional playoff games – and how much players would be compensated for that, rather than the integrity of the league and the health of its players.

So everyone is happy with getting more money?

Not even close. The final NFLPA vote tally was 1,019 to 959 with a number of absentees – those who abstained or missed the deadline. That, obviously, is really, really close, particularly given how radical the changes are to the league.

Big-name players such as Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman and Eric Reid were in vocal opposition to the agreement. Their case: more games equals more plays which equals more injuries which means shorter careers, and potentially more long-term health problems in retirement. And here’s the kicker: though the league is shifting to a 17-game season, the rise in the salaries of individual players is not proportional. So, while the league will see a massive jump in its revenue, players will be compensated at the same rate, with perhaps a slight raise for current free agents, all while seeing the risk of injuries increase.

Is it just about money?

It’s as much to do with the injury factor as anything else. The dissenting players wanted to see a proportional increase in salaries across the board to compensate them for the jump in risk. At one point, the owners proposed a deal in which the 17th game had its own salary cap, with a maximum of $250,000 per player for the final game of the season. There was, of course, no such provision placed on the renegotiation of the league’s current TV deals. The owners were somehow able to keep the 17th game outside of the league’s current revenue sharing system.

Further, in a cruel dose of irony, the league has greatly reduced former players’ disability benefits. They have narrowed the focus of what a “disability” means, the disabilities for which the league is accountable, and reduced the overall fund.

As compensation, owners bumped up the league’s pension plan, investing $2bn more into pensions over the span of the deal. The hope from all involved: the pension plan helps offset the disability cuts. For those in need, though, it reeks of everyone grabbing a slice of the pie rather than saving the funds for those who need it most.

Most important in the short-term: the NFL has also agreed to changes in testing players for the use of marijuana, a significant shift in strategy from a league run by older, conservative owners. Players have long fought for the right to use marijuana for its medicinal properties, but the league has always shunned the idea, even in states where it is legal.

That was always a bargaining ploy. The league didn’t want to consistently promote headlines that they were banning players for smoking weed. But they weren’t going to scrap the bans without receiving something substantial in return. The NFL upped its THC threshold and agreed not to suspend players for a failed marijuana test.

The league has also tweaked its disciplinary process. Previously, commissioner Roger Goodell was in charge of handling cases and appeals, leading to any number of controversies – the Ray Rice saga, Deflategate, and Bountygate to name but three. Now, cases will first be heard by a neutral arbitrator, though Goodell will still oversee the appeals process.

Can the dissenting players do anything about it?

Not now. Those opposed to the deal had taken to social media to try to encourage their fellow players to vote down the new agreement. But like most workplaces, what is right for one person isn’t right for all.

There are pros to the deal. The new agreement will help a large number of players who are not superstars: an increase in minimum salaries; more roster spots (and therefore more jobs); and the extra game will be seen by those at the back-end of the roster as giving them more of a chance to play, and to earn some more money.

That, in turn, has led to accusations that owners were pitting players against each other. By increasing the league’s minimum salary, the owners were appealing to a larger base of players, what the NFLPA refers to as its “core”.

What is best for the star player isn’t typically what’s best for most players. Minimum-salary guys do not care as much about the change in endorsement rules or franchise tag. They do care greatly about the league’s new pension plan and a new set of rules which protect their data during broadcasts and contract negotiations, which may be the difference between securing a new contract or not.

The NFLPA always has a hard time straddling between getting the best deal possible for a plurality of players and those who are the most popular; those who have the most influence.

So who “won” the new deal – owners or players?

Owners always win CBA negotiations. They have more money and power, and a higher concentration of wealth. Most owners can afford to take a month or two off if players strike because they’re unhappy with a deal, perhaps even a whole season if it came to that (though the knock-on effects on the health of the sport would be disastrous). Players – apart from the big stars – don’t have that kind of leverage. A bunch of players, most notably those on the back-end of the roster or on practice squads, live paycheck to paycheck, like most of society, with zero job security. That imbalance creates a divide between the league’s haves and have-nots. In that scenario, the majority rules.

The CBA passed. But we won’t know the full scale of the fallout until we’re able to reflect back at the start of the next decade.

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