Did NFL Players Get a Good Deal?

A retired president of the players’ union and a former Packers executive unpack the new collective bargaining agreement.

Mahomes passes the ball as a 49ers linebacker rushes him and is blocked by a Chiefs lineman, during the Super Bowl.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes during Super Bowl LIV between his team and the San Francisco 49ers at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, on Feb. 2. Angela Weiss/Getty Images

In what probably qualifies as the only sports news to break over the weekend that wasn’t connected to the coronavirus, NFL players on Sunday narrowly voted to approve a new collective bargaining agreement with NFL owners. How narrowly? The votes for the deal numbered 1,019 in support to 959 votes against the proposal. And consider that about 500 NFL players didn’t actually cast a ballot. There will be many changes to the NFL as a result of this new contract. Probably the two biggest, the ones you likely heard about before ballots were cast, are expanding the regular season from 16 to 17 games and adding two more teams to the NFL’s playoff field, starting as soon as next season, whenever that starts. There will also be a bump in minimum player salaries, the players will get a slightly larger share of league revenue starting in 2021, and the league will stop suspending players for positive marijuana tests.

To discuss why and how the agreement was ratified, why the vote was so close, and what happens next, Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen invited on Domonique Foxworth, a former NFL player with the Broncos, Falcons, and Ravens; a former president of the NFL Players Association; and a commenter for ESPN. They were joined by Andrew Brandt, a columnist for Sports Illustrated’s MMQB and a former front office executive with the Green Bay Packers. You can read their conversation with Hang Up and Listen co-hosts Stefan Fatsis and Joel Anderson below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joel Anderson: You both seem to have been skeptical of the deal for the players before they ever signed it. What do you think of what they signed on Monday and what they settled on?*

Domonique Foxworth: I don’t know that I would say that I was skeptical. I think the deal was interesting, if you want to put a positive spin on it, from the players’ side. I think this is the first time—you can look at all the major sports in the last decade-plus—that there has been financial gains on the players’ side. You can’t get anything in negotiations unless you’re willing to pay some sort of price. Normally that price is a strike, a work stoppage, or protracted legal battles. The price in this case is an extra game. It’s up to them, the guys who are going to be subjecting themselves to the risk of violence of a game. It’s up to them to decide whether the price is fair or not, but I do think, generally, we’re underestimating how expensive, for lack of a better term, it is to play one more football game. You can’t take away a preseason game and a bunch of practices and think that the wear and tear on these guys’ bodies is going to be a net neutral [to an extra game] at the end of the day.

Andrew Brandt: Yeah, I think I agree with Domonique in a lot of ways. The thing to me was not who was the hot-take winner or loser of this deal. To me, there’s an inequitability about this, where you have a massive concession by the players: inventory. The owners want to grow the game. I get it. The game is limited at 16 games. The game is limited in this country. They want to be bigger and bigger and what better way than to add another game? But at one point, I thought 17 games was a non-negotiable for the players’ side, yet we hear now that 17 games became a non-negotiable for the owners’ side. I just don’t think [the players] got enough. If you pull back, for the average, casual fan saying, “Oh, what happened in that CBA?” The headline is going to be the 17 games and then the extra playoff games where the second seed no longer gets a buy. And the headline for the players? Well, extra minimum money. As Dom mentioned, [they also got] some increases in pensions and benefits, some incremental gains on health and safety rules that, to me, owners were going to give anyway. So, it just seems like an inequitable deal.

Foxworth: I would understand and agree with you. The place I would push back is, you’re not necessarily accounting for the change in revenue. It can climb up to, I think, 48.8 percent of total revenue at the high end [for the players], if TV money goes up to as high as they expect it to go. That’s significant. That’s billions of dollars. And I’m not arguing that this is a good deal. I was a part of the last negotiations where the owners presented 18 games, and that was a deal-breaker at that point. They presented 18 games, and we were like, “All right, well we don’t even need to talk. We’ll see you at the lockout.” They backed off of that, but I suspect that they were just trying to move the Overton window in that negotiation to prepare for the one that was coming up this time, to make 17 games seem more palatable.

I agree with you that maybe it’s not enough, but the tough thing—having been involved in those negotiations—is how do you get more? The real tough part is where do you create any more leverage than you already created as a player?

Brandt: Right, Dom. We’re back to non-negotiables. I just saw [New Orleans Saints punter] Thomas Morstead’s tweet about asking for 53 percent [of revenue]. Listen, I get it, but if the owners say, “Hey, listen. No way, no how we are doing a deal without 17 games.” Now, maybe the players said, “No way, no how we’re doing a deal without all these increases” that they got. But what if they said instead, “No way, no how we’re doing a deal without a 50/50 split”? Now again, the owners could say no, and then the fear factor would set in: It’s not going to be a good deal next time, and it’s going to get worse, and there will be strikes and lockouts. I think there was too much of that.

When I talk to people about the deal, I hear so much, “Well, they would never stay together. There’d be a lockout. The owners would rub their nose in it.” It was never about this is a really good deal. It was all about the fear about what happens if they don’t take it, which is frustrating to hear.

Stefan Fatsis: Dom, you’ve been involved in previous negotiations. You were president of the Players Association. I was talking to one of your former Broncos teammates, my friend Nate Jackson, about the deal, and he pointed out what a lot of people are pointing to: the discrepancy between what low-income (by NFL standards) players felt about this and what the superstar end of the league felt about this. This is a common outcome in these deals. The top, then, seem to be opposed. The lower end—concerned about their careers, which only last two, two-and-a-half, three years—are more favorable, because they don’t want to lose time to a work stoppage.

Nate wrote to me, “This means that the players’ money at the low end will last them seven years after they retire instead of five, and the owners will always be billionaires.” Is the resentment between the superstars in the league and the rank and file problematic going forward?

Foxworth: No, I’ve always disagreed with that characterization. I think it’s an easy one, and I think logically it makes sense, but if you’re actually in those rooms, no one actually considers themselves rank and file. No one entered this league with the expectation of making a couple hundred thousand dollars over a few years and then leaving, having had a two- or three-year career. Everyone who’s in the league now believes that they are just a chance away from hitting that home run deal and getting that big contract extension. It’s hard for me to imagine that many of the players were caught up in raising their minimum salary and adding a couple hundred thousand dollars to this year’s salary. So many more of the players, and the guys who were second string and sixth-round draft picks—even those guys were very concerned with what the free agency pool was going to look like, how franchise tags would impact them. That’s why you enter the league. When you’re 10 years old and you commit yourself to making it to the NFL, it’s not so that you can have a four-year career. No one who’s in the league honestly thinks, “Yeah, this is just going to be four years.” That’d be a really bad decision. It’s a poor use of your time if you got to the league and only played for four years. That’s a lifetime’s worth of commitment. While hundreds of thousands of dollars is nothing to sneeze at, it’s not enough to live your life off of, and it’s certainly not enough to validate the sacrifices that player has made to get there.

Brandt: I think if that characterization was true, Stefan, I just think then you’re saying, “Well, so a thousand players are stars?” Because 960 players voted against this deal. What, maybe 20 of them are stars? Think about that characterization. We have a deal in place for 11 years that the executive council was against, that the players’ reps were barely for, 17–14, with one abstention, and that the full populace of players approved by a few dozen votes. This is not rank and file versus stars. The evidence is there that there’s deep division about this deal, and if the rules—as Dom knows better than anyone—say that’s the rules and it passes, great. But there’s lingering feelings about this deal at all levels, from practice squad up to superstar.

Foxworth: I think the people that I’ve talked to, some executive committee members and some reps, their issue with this deal is less with the specifics as much as it is about the process. So many of them felt like they were not up against a hard deadline like we were when we went through our negotiations, where if we did not take a deal, we would likely miss four games at least, or we would miss some games because we signed the deal in the summer before the start of the season. These guys thought they had more time, and then all of a sudden it was laid on their lap, at least from their perspective. This is the deal: take it or leave it. If you don’t take it now, we’re going to get locked out or we’re going to go on strike. I think that’s what guys are angry about. That’s what they were voting no to more than they were voting no to the deal itself. They were voting no to feeling like they weren’t involved in the process and then it was slammed on their lap.

Fatsis:  Well, Andrew, was that a legitimate fear? They’re going into TV negotiations. That obviously was driving the owners’ desire to get this done sooner rather than later. Could the players have done what Dom was just suggesting? Just said, “Well, pump the brakes on this and let’s renegotiate when we’re closer to the TV deadline next year.”

Brandt: I think so. Listen, again, I felt what Domonique felt. I felt like a lot of people were talking as though we were sitting here in March 2021, and not March 2020. As I said before, what would happen if [the players] turned it down? There seemed to be this sort of narrative that the owners would rub their noses in it, like a dog who pooped on the carpet, and never come back—pack up their briefcases, and put a worse deal out there [next time]. I just think that would not have been the case. I know there’s all this dissension between owners and players, but I just don’t see them ignoring the players for a year if that had happened.

The TV deals were driving this, and of course it’s all different now with the [coronavirus] crisis, but what did the NFL need, to do these long-term TV deals? They need: one, labor peace, because no TV network’s going to jump in fearing a lockout, and two, 17 games. Who holds the key to both? The players. I just didn’t understand this fear-based mentality about, well, you better do it now because who knows. Again, we’re a year away.

Foxworth: I have my experience to fall back on, and my experience was different because we actually had our backs against the wall, but guys [now] aren’t necessarily interested in taking more risk. I think the reason why some of the star players are more outspoken about it is because, frankly, they do have some financial security. Whether the deal was going to get substantially better, or a little bit better, or still be the same, I think when it was time to make a decision a lot of guys were like, “Well, this deal is on the table. This means that I’m going to be able to continue to play football. This means that I’m going to get paid.” In their minds, I’m not sure it’s worth it [to hold out]. Honestly, logically, it may not be actually worth it to go back to the table and put all that in jeopardy. While you might be right: They might have more leverage if they did it that way, Andrew. They might also just end up where they were or end up worse off. It’s just not worth it for them, that they sacrifice so much through the course of their lives to get to this point. Imagine that they look at this and they’re like, “Well, this isn’t the time to; this time when I’m right on the brink or the precipice of getting all this money that I’ve been working for and having this opportunity and playing the game that I love, this is not the time to try to play hardball.” I suspect that that was the calculus for a lot of the players who voted yes.

Brandt: Yeah, I get it. Just one more thing on the superstar thing: I just think, to me it’s kind of the inverse. If Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt, Russell Wilson really didn’t care about everyone else, they’d say, “Yeah, take the deal. Sure. I’m fine either way. Take your deal.”

Foxworth: Exactly.

Brandt: But it’s the other way. I think they’re fighting for players that don’t have what they do. I just kind of look at it that way. They’re not saying, “It’s all about us.” If it was all about them, take it. Sure. Fine. No problem with them. They got their money. So, I think that was framed the wrong way.

Anderson: Who’s responsible for putting that sort of pressure on the players then? We talked about the idea that the players felt this pressure and that this deal had to get done. Where is it coming from?

Foxworth: Yeah, I would say that it’s something that we perpetuate in the media, but I think it’s something that the owners want to create. And everyone who was involved in negotiating this deal wanted the deal to get done. They felt like they were at the endpoint and they could get nothing more, and so, they don’t want it to get pushed back to them and be told, “Fix it.” I think anyone who was involved in negotiating—at least that was the feeling coming out of negotiations, that the leadership of the union wanted it done. The leadership on the league side wanted it done, but some of the players felt that it was thrown at them.

Brandt: You know I negotiated contracts for the Packers for 10 years. Listen, this was very strategic by the owners, and they [regularly] do it; I did it on the team side all the time. You offer enough early money to entice a player for a long-term deal and get cost certainty extending out. On the individual player side, you give them an X-million-dollar bonus, they jump in on a long-term deal, and you’ve got that cost certainty. Here, they went to 65 percent of the players who are making minimum, 65 percent of the league, and offer $100,000 [each]. That’s enticing. Sure, [those players] are not thinking about what the deal’s going to look like in eight years when they’re out of the league. I just think that was strategic by the owners. Again, back to the original point: Even with that, half the league said no.

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Correction, March 17, 2020: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misidentified the asker of two questions as Stefan Fatsis. Joel Anderson asked them.