An Abbreviated History of the Collective Bargaining Agreement


There may not be a scarier three-letter acronym for fans of the National Football League than the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement). Why would a bargaining agreement between the owners and players make fans shake in their boots? Historically speaking, it comes down to two words. “Work stoppage”!

In 1968 the NFL owners would first recognize the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA). After a threat to strike to increase player salaries, pensions, and other benefits, the owners would lock them out. Eleven days later the first CBA was struck. Increasing rookie salaries to $9k a year, veterans to $10k. Also setting aside $1.5 million dollars to player pensions.

A New League

After the NFL/AFL merger in 1970, during negotiations on a new CBA, the players would strike. It was July but one can assume with the business of the merger at hand, the owners did not need labor news flooding the airwaves. Four days later an agreement would increase player’s salaries, alter the medical and pension programs. It would also allow for impartial arbitration of injury grievances which were previously decided exclusively by Pete Rozelle, the NFL Commissioner.

The Rozelle Rule

In 1974, the players went on strike for five weeks declaring “No Freedom, No Football“. Challenging the “Rozelle Rule’ as being restrictive to free agency as a violation of antitrust laws. After receiving no concessions, the players would return to work after a two-week cooling-off period and choose instead to challenge the rule in court with the Mackey vs. NFL lawsuit.

After the players won the Mackey case, a new CBA in 1977 with an agreement the CBA would implement the right of first refusal and a new compensation system to replace the Pete Rozelle Rule. The agreement also significantly improved some medical and pension benefits for players and gained neutral arbitration of all player/club disputes.

New Decade, Same Ol’ Same Ol’

In 1982 the players would go on strike for free agency after the second week of the season. Lasting 57 days, the CBA eventually hammered out included an abbreviated 9 game season and a format that allowed 16 teams to make the post season. That was the third the Buccaneers made the playoffs in team history. The second year in a row they would exit those playoffs with a loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

Things would really get ugly in 1987. Again, the players would strike for free agency, two weeks into the season. The NFL would skip one week and bring in replacement players. Under a month later the players would vote to end the strike. Things had gotten bad. There were players who crossed picket lines to play alongside replacement players (Joe Montana, Lawrence Taylor and Tony Dorsett were a few of the notables). The players would end up playing without a CBA until 1993. They would however get Plan B in 1989. I washed down version of free agency that gave the teams the right to protect 37 players on their rosters from being free agents.

A Shift in Power

In 1993 the scales would really start to tip. Thanks to a ruling in court brought by Freeman McNeil, Plan B was ruled too restrictive under federal antitrust laws. So the NFLPA filed a class action lawsuit in the name of one Reggie White. The new CBA would provide players with unrestricted free agency after four years with the teams getting the right to define one player each year as a franchise player. The owners also agreed to increase player salaries based on league revenues. Salaries would increase by 36% that year. A big note here, there was no work stoppage. Seems like the NFL and the NFLPA were learning to play nice.

Progress Continues 

In 2006  it was agreed to extend the CBA from 1993. With the owners agreeing to include more revenues in the salary cap and benefits, including the first ever plan to provide funds to players for medical expenses after their post-career medical insurance ran out. There was language to let either side opt out of the CBA agreement before November 8th, 2008. If one chose to do this, it would mean that the CBA would expire on March 1st, 2011.

In 2011 the owners and commissioner Roger Goodell demanded a cutback in salaries and benefits under the salary cap system. The NFLPA would reject the demands. Requesting for the teams to open their books to demonstrate why the cut backs were needed. Although there was no salary cap in 2010, free agency and overall salaries would decline. The NFLPA would a collusion case.  After failing to make any progress in negotiations, both sides accepted mediation.

After mediation failed, the CBA officially expired on March 7th, 2011. The NFLPA also ended its status as a union so the owners could not legally lock the players out. They did so anyway. The longest lockout in league history would end on July 25, 2011. Owners would agree to a 47%, and 48.5% split with the players on revenue. The new CBA would have a 10 year shelf life and will officially expire following the league year 2020.

What Does All This Mean

The owners have a business that is quite fruitful for all involved. They also didn’t become owners of NFL franchises because they are accustomed to throwing money around. The players are the mechanisms of that business that makes everybody so prosperouos. They have learned over the last 60+ years that the owners have to be “pushed” sometimes into doing the right thing.

Because the collective bargaining agreement runs through the 2020 season there will be no work stoppage this year. The NFLPA has yet to mail the ballots out to all its members for a vote. There has been some displeasure from some high profile players. It seems enthusiasm for the latest labor proposal is trending down. Football fans will watch to see how the this plays out. The longer it takes the NFL to ratify a CBA, the better the chance fans will be saying WTF.

Photo credit: CBS New York