NFL labor talks deadlocked

Negotiations between league, union break off

revenue issue still bothers owners


The countdown to the NFL's approaching labor agreement deadline has the feel of an old James Bond movie in which the bomb that blows up the world ticks off the final seconds. And if the two sides in the football dispute don't come to an agreement by tomorrow night, it just could be the end of the NFL world - at least as fans have come to know it.

Yesterday talks broke off between NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw on an extension of the collective bargaining agreement between players and the league. No new meetings were scheduled.

Team owners are being summoned to New York for a meeting tomorrow when they will be told how the NFLPA is "over-reaching" in its demands, according to a league statement.

"We're deadlocked. There's nowhere to go," union head Upshaw said. "There's no reason to continue meeting."

Without a CBA extension, part of the foundation for the league's vaunted competitive balance crumbles - namely, the salary cap. And in the future, even the draft of college players could disappear since its existence appears reliant on a negotiated labor deal.

Although the CBA runs through the 2007 season, a critical deadline for addressing certain key elements of the contract is Friday, which is both the start of the NFL calendar and the beginning of 2006 free agency. The current CBA calls for an end to the cap after this year, one supposed "poison pill" that was meant to encourage a settlement by this point.

The main sticking point is what percentage of the league's revenues should go toward player salaries. Upshaw has said it has to be at least 60 percent and the league's proposal has been reported to be just more than 56 percent.

Another relevant issue has been exactly what revenues are subject to that percentage. Until now, it has been "designated gross revenues," mainly TV money and gate receipts. But the union has pushed to include all football revenues, including locally generated cash.

While most of the league's revenues are divided equally among the 32 franchises, locally generated cash streams are not. And teams that generate less money locally are concerned about having a proportionally larger chunk of their local revenues go toward player salaries. At the same time, a handful of high-local revenue clubs, such as the Dallas Cowboys, have balked at sharing that type of revenue with other teams.

While the union has tied a resolution of its own to the owners' internal wrangling, the league wants to keep the two debates separate. "There will be no discussion at [tomorrow's] league meeting of internal revenue sharing issues," the NFL said in its statement.

Should free agency start Friday without a CBA extension, there would be a chain reaction that could alter the league permanently.

"All of the riches that have come to the game - nearly a quadruple of the salary cap since 1993 - is due to the fact that the system we currently have encourages competition from top to bottom," Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian said at the recent NFL scouting combine.

"The Colts were 3-13 the year prior to [the current staff] getting here and we've been in the playoffs six out of the eight years. ... Without a salary cap, we'd be hard-pressed to be competitive, much less have that kind of record."

Polian could just as easily have been talking about the Buffalo Bills or Green Bay Packers or Cincinnati Bengals or even the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. In the long run, not many small- and medium-market teams could compete with bigger revenue-producing franchises, such as Dallas, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Redskins, without the fiscal mechanisms in the current CBA that level the playing field.

The more immediate impact would be felt in two quarters, teams already over the anticipated 2006 salary cap - count the Redskins in that group - and a significant number of players, who will either lose their jobs or make a lot less money as free agents than they hoped. The Ravens have said they won't be required to make cap-forced roster cuts.

"Right now, everybody is nervous [about the CBA]. Certainly, we're one of those teams," Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said at the combine. His team might have to release a slew of quality players to get under a more restrictive cap.

"Teams that are really aggressive are concerned. We have a worst-case scenario that we have been working on for several weeks, and we have a best-case, and everything in between."

Without a CBA extension, it is anticipated that the 2006 salary cap will be between $92 million and $95 million per team, probably on the higher end of that range. That's the number teams will have to reach by Friday at 12 a.m., and it means many veterans will be sent packing. It also means a tighter market for their services.

With an extension, the cap would be as high as $105 million.

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