Now that mediation between the players and league has broken down and the union disbanded, what does the work stoppage mean for the game? Here are some answers:
Q: Why did the union decertify?
A: The union, on paper at least, ceases to exist. This theoretically prevents the NFL from making a sweeping action against the players, such as declaring a lockout (although that is still expected). With no union, each player becomes an individual employee of the NFL, so if the teams in unison agree to keep them from working, players (including stars like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning) would be free to file antitrust lawsuits against the league. The league will argue that the decertification is just a legal maneuver and that the union, in principle, still represents the players.
Still, some experts have suggested the players' strategy is anything but a slam dunk solution. Antitrust lawsuits can take more than a year to work its way through the courts, and conventional wisdom says getting a judge to issue an injunction barring a lockout will be difficult, at best.
But decertification was the union's primary weapon, and the players felt compelled to pull the trigger.
Q: What happens to free agency?
A: Because there is no labor agreement, there is no framework to use in negotiating contracts. So, if you're a free agent — and roughly 500 players are — you're in a serious state of limbo. If the lockout lingers into the fall and there is a mad rush to get the season underway, it's unclear what, if anything, can be done to remedy the free agency situation. The options range from a very short signing period that would launch a bidding war among teams, to a less likely scenario where free agents would be forced to spend another year with their current clubs.
The Bucs are one of the teams that will have quite a bit of work to do when free agency is allowed, since Davin Joseph, Barrett Ruud, Quincy Black and Jeremy Trueblood are among the players who are likely to be free agents under a new labor agreement.
Q: Will the April draft be affected?
A: Yes and no. League guidelines provide for a draft during a work stoppage, but teams could be hamstrung by a couple of key differences. For one, absent a new agreement before the draft, teams will be choosing college players without having participated in free agency first. Usually free agents are signed before the draft, allowing teams to have a better idea of their rosters' makeup. Not having that luxury will make draft choices trickier. No new deal would also mean teams can't trade current players for draft choices. They can swap draft picks, but not players. And after the draft, undrafted players would not be permitted to sign with teams until there is a new agreement.
Q: What happens to offseason workouts?
A: The last CBA provided for offseason conditioning programs, 14 voluntary offseason team activities, rookie minicamps and mandatory minicamps, but all that comes to a grinding halt now. The Bucs and other clubs would historically be getting ready to crank up offseason conditioning programs, but players now are on their own. Tampa Bay's players have talked loosely about plans to hold player-only practices, since they'll likely be barred from the team facility and can't have contact with coaches. But those efforts aren't likely to be nearly as productive as workouts organized by the teams under the supervision of coaches and with the benefit of playbooks.
The loss of offseason workouts would be particularly hard on young teams like the Bucs, whose improvement last season could be stymied by the lack of preparation. If this battle drags on, it remains to be seen how much time will be allotted for training camp and/or exhibition games.
Q: How long will this last?
A: There's really no telling, but both sides are preparing for the worst. There is nothing to indicate this will be a swift process. And the more litigious this becomes, the more likely it is to be a long, drawn-out process.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.