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NFL, NFLPA have long way to go to resolve financial matters related to pandemic

Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was among the first in the NFL to test positive for the coronavirus.
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was among the first in the NFL to test positive for the coronavirus.Roger Steinman/Associated Press

The NFL and NFL Players Association mostly have been in lockstep on the health and safety measures needed to play a 2020 season. All medical protocols are produced jointly between the sides, and they already have announced social distancing and disinfection plans at team facilities during training camp and for travel to preseason games.

But the owners and NFLPA are still far apart on the multitude of financial matters that need to be negotiated before training camps can open July 28, the date the NFL has circled. The sides held negotiating sessions Monday and Tuesday, and were expected to communicate again this week.

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The NFLPA has been hosting frequent calls open to all 2,800-plus players on the state of the negotiations. Here are the most important matters the owners and the union must resolve before starting training camp:

▪ Arguably the biggest issue: How to handle the massive hit coming to the salary cap. The salary cap is directly tied to league revenues, and the NFL is expecting a significant shortfall this year due to having few or no fans in the stands. If the owners and union don’t negotiate anything, the NFLPA expects each team to lose $70 million in salary cap space in 2020. A cap that is $198 million in 2020 would be around $128 million in 2021.

But that scenario would create chaos, as it would force teams to cut many of their top players and would wreck free agency. It also would force the player class of 2021 to take the entire financial hit of the pandemic.

The owners have proposed that this year’s players put 35 percent of their salaries in escrow, but the NFLPA considers it a non-starter because it requires current players to take the entire financial hit. Instead, the union wants to spread the $70 million hit over as many years as possible.

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Reducing the salary cap by, say, $10 million per year over the next seven years would smooth out the sting and allow teams to continue to acquire players as usual. The NFL may fight it as a negotiating ploy, but smoothing out the cap loss benefits the owners as much as the players.

▪ A related argument won’t be so amicable: How much will players get paid if the NFL starts the season but doesn’t play 16 games? The collective bargaining agreement states that players are paid their salaries once the regular-season games begin (earning 1/17th each week). And veterans with four-plus credited years get their entire season salary guaranteed if they are on a Week 1 roster. But the CBA does not account for a force majeure scenario in which the league only plays a handful of games.

The owners believe the players deserve a prorated share of their salary for however many games are played, as what happened during the 1982 strike season. The NFLPA argues that players deserve their full base salaries even if just one game is played, and believes it has a strong case.

But the union has to be wary of the owners dragging the process out in court and putting players through an interminable wait for their money. The union also wants to negotiate favorable terms for smoothing out the salary cap and other issues. So don’t be surprised if this result winds up somewhere in the middle.

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▪ Quietly the most important issue: Will a positive COVID-19 test be considered a football or non-football injury? The distinction is important, because a football injury entitles a player to his entire salary (but not bonuses), but a non-football injury gives teams the ability to reduce a player’s pay.

Also important: Will a player who tests positive for COVID-19 go on injured reserve, or get a new roster designation? Avoiding the IR list is important for the NFLPA, because going on IR allows teams to pay players their “split” salary if it is in their contract. This affects the majority of draft picks and minimum-salary players who fill out NFL rosters. For example, Patriots third-round pick Dalton Keene has a minimum $610,000 salary this season ($35,882 per week), and it gets bumped down to $23,529 for each week he is on IR.

One of the NFLPA’s most important fights is to create a separate roster designation for COVID-positive players, which would allow players to return quickly to the roster and maintain their salary levels.

▪Another major issue: What happens with players who want to opt out? The NFL isn’t going to force anyone to play, even after already reporting to the team.

But the financial implications are complicated. Should a player receive his full base salary, or his injury split, or no salary at all? Should he get a credited year toward free agency, or will his contract toll?

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The NFLPA wants players to receive their full base salary, and to get an accrued season for free agency and benefits purposes. ESPN reported the union also wants a guaranteed stipend of $250,000 to players if they show up to camp and everything is shut down because of the coronavirus, and $500,000 if it happens in the regular season.

The owners are obviously opposed, and the stipend seems like a tough ask by the union. But the owners must be careful about the optics of appearing callous to player needs during a national health crisis.

▪ One thing that won’t happen is a player strike to start the season. A strike that lasted seven days would invalidate the entire CBA that the sides agreed to in March. The CBA lasts through the 2030 season and provides important guidelines that both sides must follow. Without a CBA, the owners could unilaterally impose a lot of rules on the players.

▪ The size of rosters is still being negotiated, both for training camp and the regular season. One proposal for training camp would reduce rosters to 80 as a way to reduce group sizes in team facilities. Others being considered would increase rosters to 100 or more, in case teams need more healthy bodies. And for the regular season, the two sides are considering whether it makes sense to have an expanded practice squad or even a second practice squad.

Either way, practice time is going to be significantly altered, and it’s going to be tougher for late-round and undrafted rookies to get reps and make an impact on their coaches.

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▪ There are still several health and safety protocols that need to be negotiated. The acclimation period of players returning to football after eight months away will be slow, and could include up to three weeks of conditioning-only practices. The number of preseason games is still being negotiated, with the NFL wanting two and the NFLPA none.

And the testing protocol has not been finalized. NFLPA medical director Thom Mayer said in June he expected everyone in the NFL (players, coaches, and anyone who works in the team facility) to be tested three times per week. But with the pandemic spiking in several NFL cities, the NFLPA is now pushing hard for daily testing for everyone, with results in less than 24 hours.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.