NFL: The First Shots of the NFL’s Labor Stoppage Civil War Have Been Fired in Chicago

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 11: NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith addresses reporters after the league and the NFL Players Association failed to reach an agreement in labor talks at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building March 11, 2011 in Washington, DC. The NFLPA has filed for decertification and will no longer be the exclusive collective bargaining representative for the players. Players will now be able to file antitrust lawsuits against the NFL. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 11: NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith addresses reporters after the league and the NFL Players Association failed to reach an agreement in labor talks at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building March 11, 2011 in Washington, DC. The NFLPA has filed for decertification and will no longer be the exclusive collective bargaining representative for the players. Players will now be able to file antitrust lawsuits against the NFL. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images) /

To many fans, 2021 seems so far away.  Most cannot fathom how a date so far in the future can be affecting things today.  Yet make no mistake, Roquan Smith’s hold out is the first real shots fired toward the NFLPA’s ultimate goal, 100% guaranteed contracts with no outs.

I’d love to tell you that I’m psychic in predicting a labor stoppage in 2021, but I’m not.  Instead I’m watching carefully at the events unfolding around the NFL and it’s contract negotiations and I’m simply following the logic.  The labor stoppage seems so apparent, that I bet owners have begun scouting the CFL and other para-football organizations in order to find the best of the possible replacement players for when that happens.

If you don’t see it coming, then you’ve missed the first shots being fired in Chicago, and to a lesser extent in Los Angeles.  The battle lines have been drawn up by the opposing generals, and now they are beginning to deploy the troops.  This has led to some skirmishes, but I think it’s fair to call Roquan Smith’s contract impasse the first real battle of the war, and I think this time it could get ugly.

Before I can tell you how I arrived at this conclusion, I had better lay a little ground work.  I’m sure some people reading this already think I’m a nut job.  They say that there will be not labor stoppage because they believe that Roquan Smith is only hours away from signing his contract once the details are hammered out, and they also believe that Aaron Donald is going to get paid prior to the season.  They believe that the teams will cave because they need the talent on the field, but let’s be clear, the team will make full revenues without those players, but the players will lose millions that they can never recover.  The numbers are on the side of the league, and in any war, attrition is king.

Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears /

Chicago Bears

The Labor Stoppage Build Up:

Like any war, there is always a build up period.  A time when things have gotten so tense that both countries begin to bring their military to full alert status and deploy them to the conflict zone.  The generals sit at their sand tables and talk topography, terrain, formations, and numbers.  This conflict has seen the same thing, only without the weapons.

At this point, the NFL and NFLPA have progressed through the build up period.  The conflict zone is player contracts, and the battle lines are guarantees & signing bonuses, contract out performance raises, injury settlements, league discipline, and player risk factors (pre-season games, league equipment mandates, etc.).  Most of the conflict lays upon these lines, and so both sides have started lining up their troops along them.

Skirmishes have happened in the past, but as most generals will prior to a war, they quickly disengage in order to save their strength for the real fight.  The holdouts from last year generally saw compromise on both sides after some initial acrimony.  Players ultimately signed their tag offers and played, but this year things are different.  There are some skirmishes that I think will get resolved, and then there are some that I think are real labor stoppage battles.

The Skirmishes:

Julio Jones – Contract Out Performance Battlefield: This skirmish flared up, but was quickly put to rest by both sides.  The team gave Jones an additional $900,000, and Jones agreed to take it on faith that they’ll negotiate a long-term contract with him.  Small conflict, but nothing really note worthy.

Earl Thomas – Contract Out Performance Battlefield: This skirmish is a bit more heated, but in the end Thomas will report to training camp and will be getting another credited season and the money that goes along with it towards the league’s rules & policies.  Ultimately smoke, but no real fire.

Le’Veon Bell – Contract Out Performance and Guarantees & Signing Bonuses Battlefields: I think this will get done.  The Steelers can afford to set the standard for Running Backs, and all reports say that he will settle for something in the 15-17 million range.  I truly believe that the two sides are close enough that this’ll get done soon.  He’s going to be playing in the regular season, he told Jeremy Fowler from ESPN, and that makes sense because he doesn’t want to leave money on the table.

While these skirmishes will annoy fans, they ultimately will not cause any issues since the players are most likely going to be playing this season and it’s incredibly unlikely that they will be missing any games.  I don’t believe that the NFLPA sees much to gain by encouraging them to hold out as they are either a) already highly paid and/or b) are older players who’s best playing days are closer to being over than not, but that doesn’t mean that every situation falls into that category.

The NFLPA sees two situations this year as weak spots in their opponent’s battle formation, and I would expect them to do everything in their power to help these athletes try to win these battles.  I wouldn’t put it past them to help pay these athletes during their holdouts (not the millions they would get, but enough to satisfy them) just to make sure that they don’t cave in their negotiations.

More from Chicago Bears News

The Battles:

Aaron Donald

Why is this one a battle when the others are viewed only as skirmishes?  Because real shots have been fired, and are likely to get worse.  This will most likely escalate before it gets better.

Part of that is that Aaron Donald stands to gain much more than he might lose.  Even if he didn’t play and left $6.82 million left on the table, he’d make that up in one season’s difference, and then some, if he truly got the highest DL contact in the league.  It’s a perfect storm where the money in front of you is so much more, it’s actually worth leaving the money on the table.

Also, Donald has already lost another year of accrual on his NFL balance sheet.  That means that he no longer qualifies for Free Agency at the end of this season, but instead he enters a Restricted Free Agency state where he will not have full control over his destination.  There are numerous articles that talk about why this isn’t the worst thing for him, but it does mean that he might find less money out there since teams have to also give up a first round pick to acquire him and THEN have to still fit him under their cap with one less cost controlled contract.  Someone might do it, but that’s still a tall order.

After sacrificing so much, it is highly unlikely that Donald will play without a new contract.  Both Adam Schefter and Ian Rapoport are reporting that the NFL is bracing for the fact that he won’t play this year unless he gets a new contract.  The fact that he’s willing to leave money on the table and hurt the team to get what he feels is fair shows a level of commitment that, while not completely unprecedented, is very rare.

It is likely that both and NFL and NFLPA are encouraging their respective sides to hold their ground.  The NFL lives by the cost controlled contract.  It is how they maneuver around under the salary cap and keep the competitive balance in the league between the large and small market teams.  The only way to change this is to raise the salary cap which means that the percentage that teams make gets smaller while the percentage that the players make increases.  In the NBA, where you only have 12-14 players per team, that’s one thing, but the NFL rosters are 53 men per team and the cost of these top-heavy contracts are making it difficult to run the bottom of the roster.  Cost controlled contracts allow teams the flexibility necessary to keep enough bottom of the roster guys to fill out special teams and other such needed positions.  That will keep the NFL pushing the Rams not to give in.  This is not an issue that they think they can give up.

The NFLPA, however, has exactly what they’ve wanted for a while.  A young superstar player, who’s clearly underpaid,  who wants to reset the market for his position, and who is paid low enough that he can stand to sit out a full season because of how much he’s made and how much more he will make with the jump on his next contract.  Yes, he will lose, the $6.82 million, but he’ll save a season of wear and if he gets the $24 million a year that some are predicting him to get, then he’s all set.  The NFLPA will work as hard as they can to help him to hold out.  They NEED him to hold out.  In fact, they need to set the precedent now that if the NFL Teams won’t give in to their demands, then the players are ready to fight for what they think they deserve.  The fact that it’s gotten this far shows that both sides are ready to fight this battle.  I don’t believe that you’ll see Donald until he gets a new contract, and I don’t believe that the Rams will give him one, because they know that at worst, they’ll let another team set his market and then just match it.  Expect this one to be a long fight.

Roquan Smith

If Donald is the first battle fought on the issue of Performance Pay Increases, then Roquan Smith is the first battle in which the NFLPA will look to deal with guarantees & signing bonuses and league discipline.  It’s no secret that the NFLPA wants to change the disciplinary policy of the NFL.  In their eyes, if the court doesn’t jail you or fine you for it, then neither should the NFL.  They also want to ensure that any guaranteed money to players is not subject to change if a player is disciplined by the league.  This is the first step towards asking for fully guaranteed contracts, and it won’t be long before that battle is being fought in earnest.

Smith’s camp has received the written guarantee that they were seeking that the Bears would not go after his guaranteed money if he’s disciplined for the league’s new helmet rule.  Yet they have now made additional demands that include protections for non-play related discipline and even non-football related discipline.  That’s as close as you’ll get in today’s NFL world to saying, “Even if you kill someone, you’ll still get your money.”  This is seen as a first step, if they can win this battle space, then they’ll have set the precedent that the next labor stoppage negotiation will be built on.  It will give them the figurative high ground in the battle to come.  This is not something that they want to lose.

Let me be clear, I have no (zero, nada, zip, zilch, and none) proof that the NFLPA has been involved in this holdout scenario.  But it does stand to reason that they would with a labor stoppage looming.  Several Bears players have verbally supported Smith in his stance and that includes their representative to the NFLPA.  If the NFLPA were truly worried that Smith was hurting their negotiations and collective bargaining, then like most unions they would sit him down and explain to him that he needs to stop this and he needs to sign the contract.  The fact that they haven’t speaks volumes about their desire to win this fight.  The fact that analysts are talking about him sitting out this year and the question is being asked what kind of trade would it take to get him from Chicago should tell you just how deeply both sides are digging their battle trenches on this issue.  It has the NFL’s fingerprints all over the Bears side and the NFLPA’s all over Smith’s side.

A lot of people are blaming Smith’s agency, and yes, they rightly deserve part of the blame, but they too are tied to the NFLPA, and if the NFLPA were truly upset with what they were doing it would stop.  If the NFLPA starts warning their clients not to sign with your agency?  Well, you might as well call that the kiss of death.  These agencies aren’t going to do anything that endangers their clientele and future clientele.  No one wants to be the agency that killed the golden goose for the players, and stunts like this and Joey Bosa’s contract holdout last year could be the sparks that lights that powder keg leading to the labor stoppage.


So the war of the labor stoppage looms.  And just like past wars, it will be sparked by small battles at the front end of it.  Like Concord was to the Revolutionary war, like Fort Sumter was to the American Civil War, like Cantigny was to WWI, and Pearl Harbor was to WWII, so are these first two contract battles to the NFL’s 2021 Labor Stoppage war.  We are likely going to see more.  In fact, I would expect that we’ll have more and increasingly hostile battles in the years leading up to it.  I almost wonder if the NFL wouldn’t be better off renegotiating the entire CBA now and using the current one as cover to fight this war without it going to a labor stoppage.  This would significantly hinder the player’s ability to hold the seasons hostage and cost them leverage.  That’s also why the players will most likely not engage in premature negotiations even if they hate the current CBA.  They think they have more to win than just a few battles.

Mark down the opening day of 2018 in your calendar.  If both Smith and Donald are still holding out at that point, you can expect things to only get uglier, and they probably will anyway even if they’re signed.  The battle lines are drawn, the troops are deployed, the artillery is set, and the generals are pushing their chips all in.  You don’t prepare for war like this if you’re not prepared to fight.  This will be a fight, and the biggest losers will be the fans, but like all collateral damage, it’s just a part of war.

Let’s hope it’s minimal.

Get more Chicago Bears news, reactions, and coverage.