CHARLOTTE // Scan the players' parking lot at the Carolina Panthers' stadium and you catch a glimpse of the luxury an NFL career can bring. Late-model Mercedes, Lexuses and high-performance SUVs take up nearly every space. The Panthers are no different from the rest of the NFL. After years of skyrocketing salaries tied to booming league revenues, players have cashed in on being part of a hugely popular league. Yet with labour rhetoric rising and fears of a lengthy lockout in 2011, there is a much different message being sent to players by the union: The money tap could soon be turned off.
"I think it's important that we show restraint on spending," said receiver Muhsin Muhammad, Carolina's union representative. "Young players need to worry about necessities, because after two years nothing is guaranteed." With the owners deciding to trigger an early end to the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) after the 2010 season, there are ominous predictions of a work stoppage that could wipe out the 2011 season - leaving players used to living in excess without any income.
"From our standpoint right now, you not only prepare for the worst, that seems like the direction it's headed," Tennessee defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "If players aren't prepared, if guys are in bad financial situations, it hurts our leverage as players." The situation has led to a burst of activity by the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). The union sent a letter to players this summer talking about a "25-25 programme."
It suggests saving at least 25 per cent of take-home pay this year and build a nest egg if the cheques - and benefits - disappear. Players say the union is also considering putting some revenue from dues and licensing agreements into an escrow account that would be paid to players if there are no games. "We're working on that plan and trying to figure out how and how much guys would get paid - maybe US$50,000 (Dh183,500) for the year," said defensive end Dewayne White, Detroit's NFLPA rep.
For the millions who have lost jobs in the past two years, it may be difficult to have sympathy for players - or the owners who reap billions of dollars in television revenue. The NFL's first salary cap, implemented in 1994, was US$34.6m per team. The cap was at US$85.5m before the CBA was extended in 2006. That agreement calls for players to receive 60 per cent of league revenues. That caused a massive jump in the cap to US$128m this season, a US$12m increase from 2008.
Owners, concerned about rising salaries, voted to reopen negotiations on an agreement originally scheduled to expire in 2013. "Our focus is on bargaining and negotiations and getting a deal," said Jeff Pash, the owners' lead negotiator. "Anyone who says our goal is to lock the players out or shut down our business, that is a view that is divorced from reality." The players do not believe it. "From the actions that (NFLPA chief DeMaurice) Smith is watching, the owners are taking all the steps to set up for a lockout in 2011," said long-snapper Ethan Albright, Washington's interim union rep. Hence the urgency to save - new ground for many players, some of whom were not born in 1987, when NFL players last went on strike - for only a month.
"Some of these younger guys might feel that way, 'Aw, it's two years away,"' said Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware. "But guys like me, I make sure I harp on them and let them know even though it's two years away, you only get paid 16 weeks out of the year and you need to think about it." * AP