Anger in Ezekiel Elliott case also stems from union spoiling for labor fight

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

If the Ezekiel Elliott suspension battle brought us anything this week, it may have been the smoldering start to an inevitable labor inferno.

For some NFL players and agents, that was the biggest takeaway from the bombastic statements exchanged this week between the league and the players union. On one side, the NFL accused the NFLPA of smearing an alleged domestic violence victim through leaked media reports. On the other side, the union responded with a denial, framing the NFL as lying hypocrites attempting to create a “sideshow” to distract from previous “failings.” In the history of the often-fiery relationship between the league and union, it was one of the more intense exchanges.

And to some of those standing in the middle of both parties – including a handful of players and agents – the cannon shots were a subtext to something else, namely a potential collective bargaining impasse that’s nearly four years away.

“That is exactly what it is,” said one NFL player who serves as a union representative for his team. “[The] league is trying to slander the image of the [players association] ahead of the battle. … This is exactly what happens. We will win if they continue this approach. [The NFL is] losing the public trust and empathy.”

The NFL and NFLPA’s war of words over Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension played out on social media this week. (AP)

While the full and complete motivations behind the statements can be known only by the league and union, one thing appears to be irrefutable: the working relationship appears to be as strained as ever. It’s not just an outgrowth of Elliott’s domestic violence case. Indeed, the union and some players have already been thinking about a potential labor stoppage in 2021. From the union’s perspective, it can be argued that no labor preparations have begun this early or been this serious at any other point in league history.

If that hadn’t sunk in prior to this week, the union’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith, delivered the message when he told Sports Illustrated the current labor agreement was heading toward “‘small-a’ Armageddon.”

“Let’s look at our history,” Smith said when asked if NFL games could be erased in 2021. “The owners do a [collective bargaining] deal in 2006 and opt out in 2008. We do a deal in 2011 with no opt-outs because we like the benefits under the current deal, and we didn’t want to give the owners an opportunity to opt out and take back the gains that we currently have. … If there is no renegotiation of the collective bargaining agreement and we reach 2021, there is no uncapped year, right? Because the last time we went through [a supposedly uncapped year], we found out the owners lied and cheated about the uncapped year. So why would I do [an uncapped year] again?”

“All of the mutual benefits that were supposed to happen as a result of the opt-out didn’t happen last time,” Smith continued. “Owners colluded with each other, and we found out they colluded with each other. And all of the bad things that went [against] the players happened, and none of the bad things that went [against] the owners happened. So we have a new deal where if it doesn’t get fixed, you head into a certain ‘small-a’ Armageddon.”

He essentially warned the NFL that the union is already thinking of sitting out of meaningful NFL games. How serious the union is about that is a matter of speculation, but player representatives have told Yahoo Sports it is already a cornerstone of internal union conversations, along with what the union specifically wants to win in negotiations.

Player representatives have already been discussing their goals of completely removing the franchise tag from the negotiating table and finding an avenue to solidify more guaranteed money (or even fully guaranteed contracts).

While it’s still far too early to shape up the state of negotiations, players who stand as union representatives have already told Yahoo Sports they are certain nothing of consequence can be achieved without a significant work stoppage. More to the point: wiping out regular-season games or possibly an entire NFL season via strike or lockout. That’s how serious this mindset has already become for a potential event four years from now.

Union chief DeMaurice Smith has a long memory of past negotiations with the NFL. (AP)

In turn, players and some individuals at the NFLPA are already calculating the amount of money the union would have to hold in reserve to accomplish that. One source familiar with those conversations said the union might have to approach $500 million to $600 million dollars in reserves, which would then be doled out to players to sustain them as regular-season paychecks are erased.

How that could be accomplished or whether NFL players are willing to save that much in advance of a fight remains to be seen. But the venom is already there when it comes to motivation. Words and feelings have been flying around for a while between the league and union, and last week’s nasty dueling media releases on Ezekiel Elliott’s domestic violence case was the latest public example.

Whether it’s legitimately about domestic violence or merely the subtext for a brutal labor negotiation ahead, the fire and brimstone cannon shots between the two sides are unlikely to end here. This is going to be a long four years of searing labor talks. And the smoldering appears to have already begun.

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