NFL has little leverage to secure salary givebacks

Sometimes it pays, literally, to have an in-house media conglomerate.

The NFL used its NFL-owned media outlet to float a trial balloon on Tuesday regarding the possibility that players could give back some salary in 2020, in order to “save some jobs” both this season and next.

It’s a simple argument, one which has been mentioned here previously. With the salary cap set for 2020 and with losses possible if not likely in the form of games played without fans, teams will be more tempted to slash high-priced veteran players (or to squeeze them to take pay cuts under the threat of being released), hoarding cash in anticipation of the reduced revenue. For 2021, if/when the salary cap falls, that same dynamic would play out, with higher-priced veterans in greater danger of being whacked in order to keep a given team under the lower spending limit next year that would be driven by lower revenue this year.

Beyond the huffing and puffing that teams will risk blowing their own houses down by cutting players whose services will be even more valuable in a year with no offseason program to get younger, cheaper players ready, the NFL has no leverage to force the NFL Players Association to do anything by way of taking less money to, basically, share the pain of an unexpected reduction in revenue after the salary cap for a given year was set.

The players’ salaries are set. The salary cap is set. Even if the league decides to pass revenue losses through to veteran players by cutting them (or by pinching them individually to take less), the Collective Bargaining Agreement has clear spending requirements. For the most part, money not spent now will have to be spent later.

The only argument that the NFL has to not pay players arises from language in the Standard Player Contract implying that, if there’s no season, the obligation to pay base salaries never arises. If there’s only a partial season, the players arguably get their money — with the revenue losses from canceled games triggering a mutual obligation to negotiate next year on the impact on the salary cap. It’s an odd requirement in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, given that the league and the union set the salary cap based on negotiations every single year.

Plenty of teams won’t want a reduced cap. Plenty of teams want to win, and so they want to spend. Someone like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would welcome the possibility that others will harm their own competitive interests by voluntarily tightening their belts and deliberately spending less, especially if that includes dumping veteran players who would help the team be as good as it can be.

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