In an interview with 670 The Score on Thursday, NFLPA President Eric Winston steadfastly maintained that he’s begun earnest preparation for players for a lockout in 2021. Winston has only been in this leadership role since his election in 2014 and when asked to give his reasoning, he said of the NFL, “it’s not a player-friendly league anymore.”
It’s a well-known underlying fact to this stage, but the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement signed back in 2011 expires after the conclusion of the 2020 season. Back in 2011, the league didn’t miss any games, although they were forced to play with replacement officials for a few weeks. Now, with issues over “player respect” as Winston put it, there’s always the more preeminent possibility of missed games this next go around.
“Nobody wants that. But I also know that it’s a copycat league. If someone sees something and thinks it’s successful, they’re going to copy it,” said Winston.
”I’m also charged with getting my guys ready. And getting my guys ready means educating them on what a lockout looks like, what a strike looks like, what a work stoppage looks like and getting them prepared,” Winston continued. “Hopefully if we can prepare for the worst and be prepared and show the other side that we’re ready to roll, then obviously that prevents it.”
What are those situations related to player respect? They range from heavy rule changes, like anything and everything to protect quarterbacks of late, implement with little to no consultation from active players, to previously no consideration of players’ rights (or consultation) to kneel for the national anthem when protesting police brutality. The former an egregious oversight on the part of league officials in regards to player safety without actually talking to any players. The latter an egregious oversight on the part of league officials limiting free expression of players, though it has slipped away from the national consciousness.
There are also problems with pay, like an artificial rookie pay scale in the draft and the abuse of franchise tags, most notably with (soon-to-be) former Steeler Le’Veon Bell, that could be points of contention.
All are far from the tip of an iceberg that the NFL cruise ship may not be able to avoid veering away from in the open ocean in time in two years. When complications are rooted at a core level, this mess will need patience to unwind properly.
“I don’t think anybody wants a work stoppage,” Winston said. “But at the end of the day, we’re telling our guys and we’re explaining to our guys, history has a tendency to repeat itself. You got to be ready.”
The last time the NFL actually missed meaningful regular season games due to a work stoppage was in 1987, when the season was forced to be shortened to 15 games after a 24-day impasse. Before that, the 1982 strike lasted well into the regular season, eventually forcing seasons for every team to become just nine games long. That the league was able to avoid disaster in 2011 with only the notable Hall of Fame Game between the Bears and Rams being cancelled is good fortune that may not continue a couple of years from now.
That Winston, who wasn’t involved in such a prominent position until well after the fact, might not be good news for those looking to kick off September 2021 with NFL football.
It was interesting, then, that Winston felt the need to specifically cite the Bears as a point of contention in his lockout preparations. According to the NFLPA president, the Bears are notorious for being incredibly difficult to deal with at a base union level. They restrict direct access to player representatives which only makes people like Winston’s jobs that much harder. It’s the Bears that are being used as a template for how an NFL team has to improve in providing information and services to players in these delicate proceedings.
Until it does happen, though, there will be skepticism as to whether players and those involved with the NFLPA like Winston can garner enough momentum to miss games if need be. Most often in these cases, the players that have the most to lose are those on the fringe of rosters, not anyone of a star caliber. Respective owners around the league have nothing to lose when their most replaceable of players are the only ones standing on the other side of the picket line.
If the NFLPA is going to be forced to initiate a work stoppage two years from now, they’re going to need to get stars involved: people that can better hurt the bottom lines of owners. The stars don’t have to be just quarterbacks either, but someone with the name recognition of an Aaron Rodgers can’t hurt as an example.
The next two NFL seasons are going to be fascinating to watch unfold with this potential ticking time bomb looming in the background. Anyone that has legitimate championship aspirations (ahem) in the short term might be well-served to take advantage soon before everything about this league is thrown for a loop.
For the first time in awhile, it looks like the NFLPA has a public backbone thanks to Winston. That’s good news for players, and bad news for those interested in the mission of seeing meaningful football with the best possible talent on the field at all costs.
Robert is the Editor-in-chief of The Blitz Network (subscribe here!), the managing editor of Windy City Gridiron, and writes for many fine publications. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.