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July 20, 2020

John McMullen: For NFL players, fear of revenue loss is secondary to health concerns

The league should be able to manage any potential salary cap cuts, but what about the safety of the players?

Opinion NFL

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Carson Wentz 3 - Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp Linc Bastiaan Slabbers/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz during an open practice last summer at the Linc.

You’ve probably heard the term “fear porn” politicized for weeks now as both sides of a seemingly endless ideological slugfest take aim at each other like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed trading haymakers center ring over the COVID-19 pandemic.

And just like boxing’s most famous Hollywood pugilists, none of it is real. 

Neither side has any intellectual honesty, so you should boil your own COVID-19 life down to the micro-level and do what you should have been doing from the start: practice good hygiene by washing your hands a ton while wearing a mask when you can’t properly social distance.

And, oh yeah, avoid social media like it’s a pandemic as well. It’s much easier to distance yourself from the infected there.

In the NFL, the new “fear porn” is the upcoming financial hit the league is about to take with fewer fans in the stands and perhaps none at all in places like Philadelphia. The make-believe impact that could have on the 2021 salary cap is a potential disaster locally for Howie Roseman and Jake Rosenberg, the Eagles’ top two numbers crunchers.

Already in an overhyped pickle that puts them about $50 million over the projected 2021 cap in the best of financial times, NFLPA president DeMaurice Smith’s dire prediction that a season with no fans could impact things by a staggering $70M per team by next season is enough to cause nightmares for Roseman and turn the average Eagles’ fan stupefying desire of acquiring every big-name player that hits the market even more untenable than it typically is.

“The fundamental question that our leadership is dealing with is whether we have a world where we stick with option A and there’s a significant downfall on the cap next year, or whether we figure out something that makes sure that that doesn’t happen and is in the best interest of all of our members,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurcice Smith explained during a video conference call with reporters, including PhillyVoice last week.

Fear not, however. While your fantasy of adding multiples of Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue, Jamal Adams or Leonard Fournette is still as silly as it’s ever been, there will almost certainly be no massive hit to the salary cap next season.

The financial impact to the league’s bottom line will be very real, but Smith’s context to that has the NFLPA working toward a compromise that would spread the potential losses over many years so that one class of players doesn’t shoulder the entire brunt of the pandemic’s effect on the league’s economy.

“To make it simple, if there is a dramatic decrease in revenue for this year, and some estimates are that it could be $70 million per club as the impact on player cost. That means that the salary cap next year could be something around $120 million, and that would mean a number of players could be cut,” Smith admitted. “A lot of players who have salaries that would push a team above that salary cap would be forced to renegotiate, drastically renegotiate, their contracts or they would be cut.”

There’s your fear. Now you can insert the logic.

“Option B is that both sides try to work through estimates of what the decline would be and figure out a way to avoid a precipitous drop in the salary cap for next year,” Smith assessed. 

Think of it like Roseman spreading out a huge signing bonus over the five years he’s allowed to to limit cap ramifications in the short term. Except there is no limit here. Who’s to say that $70M per team loss can’t be spread out over seven years or even 10. The former would turn that $70M haircut into a $10M a season one very quickly. The latter, an even more manageable $7M a year, adding maybe one difficult decision to an offseason roster-building plan rather than multiple.

“I’d love to give you a straight answer or a simple answer on spread, but all of those things: contract length, COVID, work-related injury, opt-out, high risk, all of those things are connected into what the package will be,” Smith explained.

The owners, of course, are always fighting for immediate relief because well, why not? If you lose money, the first instinct is to try to gain it back, even for the obscenely rich. A 35 percent escrow plan was essentially laughed at by the union, and rightfully so, but anyone expecting a hardline approach by management isn’t factoring into the equation that no franchise wants to be hamstrung to the point that they would have to jettison meaningful assets just to satisfy an arbitrary guideline that can easily be manipulated.

Smith’s job is to protect those risking the most and balancing that with the future.

“If we had our preference, we would never want the players of this year, and to a certain extent next year, unfairly bear the brunt of a massive decrease in revenue in football,” he said. “They are taking the most risk by coming back to work at this point in time. And we know we’re in the business of football and we know we’ve got a long term collective bargaining agreement and our job is to represent and make the decision for past, present, and future.”

If you enjoy the hand-wringing, feel free to continue. Otherwise, if you need your fix of fear porn, my recommendation is to turn on your favorite streaming service and search for Hostel. That’s more realistic than worrying about the problems with easy fixes.

Or perhaps focus on the fact that the real threat to the 2020 season remains the obvious one and the talking points were disseminated over the weekend in response to the NFL’s instruction that training camps will begin as scheduled despite many unanswered questions from the players regarding health and safety protocols.

Several Eagles players including Carson Wentz joined in a choreographed social-media blitz using the hashtag #WeWantToPlay. 

Houston star J.J. Watt offered greater detail on what's exactly going on:

Smith also explained the nuts and bolts of the situation days before the hashtag was unleashed for public consumption.

“Remember the league is management," he assessed. "They have the exclusive right, just like somebody who owns a plant, when does it open, when does it close, what our hours are. … The CBA dictates when players report and the collective bargaining agreement dictates what players need to do to be in compliance with their contracts, and we have never minced words with our players about that. Our job is to hold the league accountable to provide as safe a workplace as possible.”

And the NFLPA plans to do exactly that.

“The priority is still on the health and safety issues that we face,” union president J.C. Tretter, the starting center of the Cleveland Browns, said. “The economics will be taken care of, but we can’t get into the economics until we make sure that our players will be protected this year.”

The Eagles’ rookies are scheduled to report to the NovaCare Complex on Tuesday and the full team is expected a week later, so we are up against it from a business standpoint.

The sticking points per an NFL source are a joint NFL/NFLPA medical committee recommendation for a 21-day acclimation period, one in which the league asked players to show up early to accommodate, as well as the wrangling over two preseason games versus no exhibitions, COVID-19 testing frequency, and potential opt-out language. 

Under the recently ratified CBA, management has the right to set reporting dates and the union could in turn file a grievance over unsafe working conditions.

That's your real "fear porn."


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John McMullen is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media and also contributes Eagles and NFL coverage for PhillyVoice and SI.com. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com.

Follow John on Twitter: @JFMcMullen

You can listen to John during the week on @SIRIUSXM’s Tony Bruno Show with Harry Mayes, every Tuesday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on @SBNationRadio. 

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