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Work stoppage won’t work until players will go without pay

In Todd Gurley's suggested work stoppage, players would need to be willing to give up game checks and history tells us that's unlikely.

Rams running back Todd Gurley made headlines recently for musing to TMZ that NFL players could get fully-guaranteed contracts via a work stoppage. Whether that’s successful depends largely on one factor: The willingness of players to go without game checks.

Gurley specifically mentioned a “lockout,” which is a work stoppage implemented by the owners after the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires. The NFL did that in 2011, and the players responded by shutting down the union. That set the stage for a potentially viable lawsuit against the league, because without the union in place any collective job action by 32 different businesses arguably violates federal antitrust laws.

To make that strategy work, the players would need to wait for both the judicial process to unfold and for the damages to mount. In the end, the players could have delivered a multi-billion-dollar blow to the league, getting every penny they would have made that year for playing football, times three.

Before that happens, however, the players have to be willing to go a year without playing football, which means going a year without getting paid to play football.

Players can initiate a work stoppage after the CBA ends by going on strike. Under that scenario, there would be no lawsuit. Instead, the players would withhold services (and also refrain from getting paid) until the economic pressure causes the owners to blink.

During the last strike, in 1987, the owners didn’t blink. They hired replacements. And the strike ended just a few weeks later.

Both strategies rely on the players having a short-term willingness to do without. Seven years ago, they didn’t. Three years from now, will they?

I asked Gurley that question during a Saturday #PFTPM interview, and it became clear that he hasn’t thought that many moves ahead. Still, to get the best possible deal in early 2021, the players need to first be committed to not getting paid. They then need to have a plan for replacing part of the lost revenue during all of the 2021 season.

Near the end of the 2011 lockout, reports emerged late in the negotiating process of a vaguely-defined insurance policy that would have compensated the players in the event the lockout lingered. Whatever that was, it wasn’t enough to get the players to decline the last, best offer that was on the table before preseason games (other than the Hall of Fame game) were canceled. This time, with legalized betting beginning to proliferate, the players should consider making plans now to stage their own games during a strike or a lockout.

Gurley seemed to be intrigued by that possibility when I mentioned it to him on Saturday. It will take a lot more than intrigue, however, to lay the foundation for the players to say to the owners, “We’ll start our own thing instead.”

Ultimately, that’s the kind of move that would force NFL owners to believe that the players are willing to skip NFL games. And it’s the kind of alternative opportunity that needs to be in place before enough players ever would.

Without something like that, a strike would never get off the ground, and a lockout would end (like it did in 2011) with the players reluctantly taking whatever they can get in order to avoid a period of getting nothing.