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'Hard no': NFL players balk at 17-game regular season

Daniel Roberts

NFL team owners on Thursday voted to approve a potential new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the players that would last through 2029.

The key changes the owners want: expand the regular season from 16 games to 17 games; expand the playoffs from 12 teams to 14 teams; increase the players’ revenue share from 47% to 48%.

But the players do not appear to love those proposed changes.

On Friday, the 32 player reps in the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) were set to vote on the proposed CBA. Instead, they decided to delay the vote, a sign of tense negotiations to come. The NFLPA will meet again with the NFL next week at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis before the player reps vote on the proposed CBA.

Houston Texans defensive end JJ Watt, one of the league’s most visible stars, was quick and blunt in his Thursday night tweet: “Hard no on that proposed CBA.” Fellow NFL players including Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, and free agents like Nick Moody and Michael Ola, retweeted Watt.

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, another outspoken leader, retweeted Watt and added: “Leadership! I am with you! Please communicate with your team rep.”

Watt has not said which specific part of the proposed CBA is his issue, but the main sticking points for players appear to be the 17-game season and the revenue split. The expanded playoff structure, a source told ESPN, has been expected “for a long time” and “there wasn't a lot of disagreement to that issue.”

Aug 8, 2019; Green Bay, WI, USA; Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) watches the game against the Green Bay Packers from the sidelines at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Sherman already said during Super Bowl weekend that he is against a 17-game season, and believes most players feel the same. “If that’s the point [the NFL is] negotiating on, then I think these negotiations are going to go a lot longer than anticipated,” he told reporters in Miami. “And not just 17, they’re really just saying 17 so they can get to 18. And so that’s two more opportunities for players to risk their bodies, put their bodies on the line.” Sherman added that the league “pretends that they care about” player safety.

Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette also tweeted out: “I disagree with the 17 games,” though he later deleted the tweet.

As Yahoo Sports explains, if the schedule goes to 17 games (which would begin with the 2022 season), a large number of star players “would be playing their 17th game of the season for a discount” because of a $250,000 cap on the 17th game check.

And while it’s obvious why team owners and the league’s broadcast partners like the idea (more games means more revenue), a longer season means more physical wear and tear for the players, though the owners are proposing fewer preseason games.

NFL alum Cliff Avril, who won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks and retired in 2018, tells Yahoo Finance that would be his issue with a 17-game season: “I think that's a bad idea. Obviously for the ownership it's great, but for players, and longevity, and quality of the football games, I think it will gradually deteriorate a little bit."

As for the revenue split, many players have long felt that it ought to be a true split: 50%. As Avril says, players in general feel they deserve “more of the pie... because we are putting our bodies on the line.”

Still, some players were reportedly unhappy with Watt’s quick tweet, sent before the NFLPA reps could discuss it on Friday. “I wish we could get on the phone and ask some questions before people start shooting things down already,” one player told Yahoo Sports.

And there are a number of gives in the owners’ proposal, including a $100,000 increase to rookie minimum salaries, and 10% increase in player pensions. Pro Football Talk’s managing editor Michael David Smith predicts that higher-paid stars will not support the new CBA, but “fringe players who make the minimum or are on the practice squad will vote for it because it does a lot for those guys.”

March 18 is the official start date of the new NFL season, and it’s in the NFLPA’s hands now to vote yes or drag out the negotiations.

What happens next will define the next decade of relations between the league and the players. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that there are “multiple NFL teams waiting to make roster moves based on” the new CBA.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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