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NFL has little leverage to secure salary givebacks

Mike Florio and Chris Simms discuss the possibility of national anthem protests returning to the NFL in the 2020 season after the death of George Floyd and riots across the country.

Sometimes it pays, literally, to have an in-house media conglomerate.

The NFL used its NFL-owned media outlet to float a trial balloon on Tuesday regarding the possibility that players could give back some salary in 2020, in order to “save some jobs” both this season and next.

It’s a simple argument, one which has been mentioned here previously. With the salary cap set for 2020 and with losses possible if not likely in the form of games played without fans, teams will be more tempted to slash high-priced veteran players (or to squeeze them to take pay cuts under the threat of being released), hoarding cash in anticipation of the reduced revenue. For 2021, if/when the salary cap falls, that same dynamic would play out, with higher-priced veterans in greater danger of being whacked in order to keep a given team under the lower spending limit next year that would be driven by lower revenue this year.

Beyond the huffing and puffing that teams will risk blowing their own houses down by cutting players whose services will be even more valuable in a year with no offseason program to get younger, cheaper players ready, the NFL has no leverage to force the NFL Players Association to do anything by way of taking less money to, basically, share the pain of an unexpected reduction in revenue after the salary cap for a given year was set.

The players’ salaries are set. The salary cap is set. Even if the league decides to pass revenue losses through to veteran players by cutting them (or by pinching them individually to take less), the Collective Bargaining Agreement has clear spending requirements. For the most part, money not spent now will have to be spent later.

The only argument that the NFL has to not pay players arises from language in the Standard Player Contract implying that, if there’s no season, the obligation to pay base salaries never arises. If there’s only a partial season, the players arguably get their money -- with the revenue losses from canceled games triggering a mutual obligation to negotiate next year on the impact on the salary cap. It’s an odd requirement in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, given that the league and the union set the salary cap based on negotiations every single year.

Plenty of teams won’t want a reduced cap. Plenty of teams want to win, and so they want to spend. Someone like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would welcome the possibility that others will harm their own competitive interests by voluntarily tightening their belts and deliberately spending less, especially if that includes dumping veteran players who would help the team be as good as it can be.

While the two sides are free to negotiate, or try to negotiate, anything they want, the league isn’t holding many cards on this one. Frankly, the mere fact that the possibility of seeking givebacks has been floated by the league to league-owned media puts the union on notice to watch carefully for any evidence of collusive activity moving forward, with the league office potentially advising teams on how to go about getting givebacks without giving anything up to get them.

There’s precedent for this kind of behavior. Remember the uncapped year of 2010? Dallas and Washington eventually were whacked by the powers-that-be in the form of dramatically reduced cap space for violating the wink-nod rules that the league put in place to prevent teams from treating the uncapped year as, you know, uncapped.

This time around, the league may want teams to treat a year with a set cap as having a lower cap. And if teams suddenly and spontaneously starting slashing salaries and coincidentally reducing their 2020 salary budgets by similar percentages, it will make plenty of sense for the union to look under every rock for evidence of coordination i.e. collusion.