Coronavirus Daze: The New NFL CBA Makes it Harder than Ever to Hold Out

Image: NFL players stand to lose piles of money if they plan to hold out under the 2020 NFL CBA. Flickr user Nick Ares, Creative Commons.

Introduction

When the new NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) was ratified and officially announced, fans and commentators worldwide focused on the two biggest changes in the CBA: the arrival of a seventeen-game schedule, and the expansion of the playoffs.  Recently, there has been some more buzz surrounding changes in the League’s marijuana policy and the fact that players will not be suspended for drug tests violations moving forward (though fans are missing that players can still be fined heavily for failing tests, and conceivably might be forced to play for free under the new policy).

But lost (rightly so) in the flood that is the current COVID-19 pandemic, there has not been the third wave of CBA analysis; the wave that addresses how the new CBA has made it even harder for players to “get the bag,” and secure long-term contracts.  This is especially critical given that the average NFL career lasts less than 3 years, and the earning window for most of these players is dramatically shorter than the public realizes.  Certainly, the new CBA has taken steps to improve the earning power of those players on minimum contracts, boosting minimum salaries by 20% immediately, and gradually increasing minimum salaries throughout the life of the deal.  However, the vast majority of players still will never see a second contract in their NFL careers.  And for those who are blessed with both good health and the talent to play at a level deserving a second contract? The new CBA makes it dramatically harder for them to secure a second contract, giving teams even more leverage in negotiations by making fines for holdouts even more punitive than in the previous labor deal.

Holdouts

The newly minted CBA includes rules changes designed to prevent holdouts from players under contract, making fines mandatory (previously, they could be waived at teams’ discretion), jacking up the daily cost of a fine up from the old $40,000 per day, and wiping away an accrued season allowing the player to hit free agency on time; in short, delaying the opportunity to hit free agency by a year.  For context, let’s look at two notable holdouts under the previous CBA— Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and then-Chargers running back Melvin Gordon—neither of which resulted in a new contract that season (Donald signed his mega-extension the following fall).  Donald, who missed the entirety of the training camp and the preseason, racked up around $1.5 million in fines.  The Rams waived the fines, preventing Donald from losing roughly 83% of his $1.8 million base salary for the 2017 season.  The cross-town rival Chargers, however, were not so kind in regards to Gordon’s holdout, requiring Gordon to pay his fines.  Gordon skipped training camp, the preseason, and the team’s first three regular-season games before returning.  The pre-season absences alone earned Gordon a $2.22 million fine, and the three regular season absences each potentially counted for a $989,118 fine, for a total fine potentially approaching $5.19 million.  Gordon made about $4.62 million in base salary that season.

These two cases indicate how potentially costly a holdout was under the previous CBA for a star player outperforming his rookie contract, consuming huge chunks of a player’s base salary.  Each player was a first-round pick, with a much higher base salary than players drafted in later rounds, making it financially prohibitive for lower-drafted or undrafted players to holdout for a new contract before their rookie deals expires.  Under the new CBA, we could see holdouts incurring fines which exceed the total value of lower-drafted players’ rookie deals.  Even for players drafted high in the first round, the newly enhanced punitive fines will be enough to deter all but the most determined players from holding out, further tilting negotiating power in favor of the NFL teams.

What Happens Next?

This off-season might teach us a lot about the potential for star players outperforming their rookie deals to hold out under the new CBA.  Star Jets safety Jamal Adams is extension-eligible this offseason and has already indicated he plans to abstain from the virtual offseason program.  He could be joined by Saints running back Alvin Kamara, a former-third rounder whose career earnings through three seasons sit at $2.88 million, as well as Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa, who has already been involved in a holdout dispute with the Chargers.  However, given the COVID-19 pandemic and economic uncertainty, don’t expect any of these players to set a firm precedent for how players will approach potential holdouts under the new CBA.

Rather, look to next offseason when things will (hopefully) have stabilized and players have more information and certainty on how to proceed.  A notable 2018 draftee who becomes extension-eligible next year is Giants running back Saquon Barkley, who may—and probably should—follow the recent pattern of highly-drafted backs sitting out to secure a long-term deal before he loses further value due to the diminishing value and shortened career spans of his position.

More likely candidates for holdouts, though, include two players on their second-contracts who can afford to take the hit of fines in hopes of adjusting their deals—wideouts DeAndre Hopkins and Stefon Diggs.  This pair has taken up the position Julio Jones used to occupy—star receivers who signed massive, long-term extensions as soon as possible, saw the receiver market explode shortly thereafter, and who will likely begin to agitate for raises as a result.  Hopkins, reportedly, was traded because he wants a raise on the remaining three years of his contract, and Texans General Manager/Head Coach Bill O’Brien did not want to deal with a potential holdout.  Diggs, acquired by the Bills this offseason, has four years left on his contract at a significantly below-market rate ($11.4 million base salary each of the final three years).  If Hopkins succeeds in getting a raise from the Cardinals this offseason by holding out, expect the mercurial Bills wideout to follow suit next year.

Image: NFL players stand to lose piles of money if they plan to hold out under the 2020 NFL CBA. Flickr user Nick Ares, Creative Commons.

Ryan Taylor, Staff Editor

References

Andy Benoit, How the Julio Jones Holdout Must Play Out, Sports Illustrated (Jun. 13, 2018), https://www.si.com/nfl/2018/06/13/julio-jones-holdout-atlanta-falcons-contract-matt-ryan-thomas-dimitroff.

Dan Graziano, NFL CBA approved: What players get in new deal, how expanded playoffs and schedule will work, ESPN (Mar. 15, 2020), https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/
28901832/nfl-cba-approved-players-get-new-deal-how-expanded-playoffs-schedule-work
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Eric D. Williams, Gordon arrives at Chargers’ facility, ends holdout, ESPN (Sept. 26, 2019), https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/27707149/gordon-arrives-chargers-facility-ends-holdout.

Jeremy Bergman, Aaron Donald ends holdout, reports to Rams facility, NFL.com (Sept. 9, 2017, 2:29 PM), http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000841241/article/aaron-donald-ends-holdout-reports-to-rams-facility.

Kerri Anne Renzulli & Courtney Connley, Here’s what the average NFL player makes in a season, CNBC (Feb. 1, 2019, 3:59 PM), https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/01/heres-what-the-average-nfl-players-makes-in-a-season.html.

Mark Maske, NFL players ratify new CBA with expanded playoffs, 17-game season, Wash. Post (Mar. 15, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2020/03/15/nfl-completes-new-cba/.

Spotrac, https://www.spotrac.com/nfl/arizona-cardinals/deandre-hopkins-12307/ (last visited Apr. 18, 2020).

Spotrac, https://www.spotrac.com/nfl/buffalo-bills/stefon-diggs-16872/ (last visited Apr. 18, 2020).

Spotrac, https://www.spotrac.com/nfl/denver-broncos/melvin-gordon-16739/ (last visited Apr. 18, 2020).

Spotrac, https://www.spotrac.com/nfl/los-angeles-rams/aaron-donald-14422/ (last visited Apr. 18, 2020).

Terez Paylor, Why the NFL CBA’s new marijuana policy isn’t a big win for players, Yahoo Sports (Mar. 15, 2020), https://sports.yahoo.com/new-nfl-cba-has-its-pluses-but-benefits-for-marijuana-users-are-far-down-the-list-224020429.html.

Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero), Twitter (February 27, 2020), https://twitter.com/TomPelissero/status/1233066365617102851.


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