NFL owners overwhelmingly approved a tentative labor agreement Thursday that would end the lingering lockout, provided that players re-establish their union and sign off on the proposal. But the players didn't vote, leaving the country's most popular sports league in limbo for at least another day.
At about 7 p.m. ET in Atlanta, NFL owners voted 31-0 -- the Oakland Raiders abstained -- to OK the labor deal, pending players' approval. Soon after, the league issued a press release announcing: "NFL clubs approved today the terms of a comprehensive settlement of litigation and a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association."
Less than an hour later in Washington, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith sent an email to the 32 player representatives saying: "Issues that need to be collectively bargained remain open; other issues, such as workers' compensation, economic issues and end-of-deal terms, remain unresolved. There is no agreement between the NFL and the players at this time."
NFL Players Association general counsel Richard Berthelsen later detailed issues he had with the owners' proposal in another email sent to the player reps.
"In addition to depriving the players of the time needed to consider forming a union and making needed changes to the old agreement, this proposed procedure would in my view also violate federal labor laws," Berthelsen wrote.
Then the players held a conference call and decided not to take a vote, saying they hadn't seen the full proposal approved by owners.
"This is a 10-year deal. We can't enter into it lightly," Cleveland Browns wide receiver/kick returner Josh Cribbs said Thursday night on NFL Network. "So fans have to understand that until we can completely dissect the CBA, we can't go forward."
"We hate that it's being put out there that the lockout is over when the reality is that we've just made significant progress," Cribbs said. "We don't want the fans to look at the players in a negative way, but it's a process."
That process led NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to speak on the phone with Smith several times Thursday, including filling him in on the results of the owners' vote before it was announced.
"Hopefully, we can all work quickly, expeditiously, to get this agreement done," Goodell said at a news conference at an Atlanta-area hotel, site of the owners' meeting. "It is time to get back to football. That's what everybody here wants to do."
But several players took to Twitter, expressing opposition to the proposal. Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark wrote: "The owners want u to believe that they have been extremely fair everywhere and this is their 'olive branch' to finalize it."
Some players claimed that owners snuck some items in the deal, but NFL spokesman Greg Aiello disputed that notion.
"It's really not true," Aiello said in an interview on NFL Network. "Anything that we put in this press release was discussed and negotiated with the players. And now the next step is for them to approve it.
"I'm not sure what it is they didn't know about or are surprised about. But again, there's certain details that the owners just found out today or don't even know yet."
Even after all acceptable terms are established, a deal would lead to a new CBA only if the player reps recommend re-establishing the NFLPA as a union, which must be approved by a majority vote of the 1,900 players.
One of the things being discussed is how and when the NFLPA would recertify as a union. Player sources indicated to NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora that the NFLPA wants to use a system of signed cards and follow certain bylaws in order to recertify. But doing it that way would take time, and the league is looking to open for business as soon as possible.
According to a source, the parties could come to a compromise whereby the lockout would be lifted before a full global settlement is reached -- which would have to include recertification in order to have a full CBA -- to allow players to report in the interim. That would make it easier to collect signatures and cards of players currently under contract since they would be centrally located at team facilities.
If that takes place, in theory, then the needed signatures could be obtained over the weekend and allow the league year to begin next week. Only a union can sign off on a CBA.
A league source told NFL.com senior writer Steve Wyche that a football operations meeting, in which teams will be briefed on the new rules, is scheduled for 8 a.m. ET Friday. And provided that players eventually approve the agreement, the NFL would go back to the business of football pretty quickly:
» On Saturday, teams could stage voluntary workouts at team facilities, and players may be waived. Contracts could be re-negotiated, and teams could sign draft picks and their own free agents. Teams also could negotiate with, but not sign, free agents from other clubs and undrafted rookies.
» On Sunday, teams could sign undrafted rookies.
» On Wednesday, the league year officially would begin, so free agency would open in full, and all training camps would open with a 90-man roster limit; activities that day would be limited to physicals, meetings and conditioning. All clubs would have to be under the salary cap.
» Players could practice without pads next Thursday and Friday.
"The time was just too short," Goodell said. "Unfortunately, we're not going to be able to play the game this year."
Other key aspects of the proposal approved by owners include:
» An agreement that covers the 2011 through 2020 seasons, including the 2021 draft.
» Reducing the offseason program by five weeks and reducing organized team activities from 14 to 10; limiting full-contact practices in the preseason and regular season, and increasing number of days off for players.
» A rookie wage scale to include four-year contracts for all drafted players (option for five years on first-rounders), three-year contracts for undrafted free agents, and strong anti-holdout rules.
» Creation of a new fund to redistribute, beginning in 2012, savings from new rookie pay system to current and retired player benefits and a veteran player performance pool.
» Unrestricted free agency for players after four accrued seasons; restricted free agency for players with three accrued seasons.
» Over the next 10 years, additional funding for retiree benefits between $900 million and $1 billion. The largest single amount, $620 million, will be used for a new "Legacy Fund," which will be devoted to increasing pensions for pre-1993 retirees.
» Salary cap plus benefits of $142.4 million per team in 2011 and at least that amount in 2012 and 2013.
The basic framework for the league's new economic model -- including how to split more than $9 billion in annual revenues -- was set up during negotiations last week.
"These things, by their very nature, aren't supposed to make you necessarily happy when you walk out the door. It was a negotiation," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "I don't mean to sound negative, but it isn't exactly like Christmas has come along here."
Final issues involved how to set aside three pending court cases, including the antitrust lawsuit filed against the NFL in federal court in Minnesota by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and nine other players. NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said the owners' understanding is that case will be dismissed.
Owners exercised an opt-out clause in the old CBA in 2008, setting the stage for the recent labor impasse. The new deal doesn't contain an opt-out clause.
"I can't say we got everything we wanted to get in the deal," New York Giants owner John Mara said. "I'm sure (players) would say the same thing. ... The best thing about it is our fans don't have to hear about labor-management relations for another 10 years."
One thing owners originally sought and won't get -- at least right away -- is expanding the regular season from 16 games to 18. That won't change before 2013, and the players must agree to a switch.
"We heard the players loud and clear," said Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, chairman of the league's competition committee. "They pushed back pretty hard on that issue."
Goodell also announced that owners approved a supplemental revenue-sharing system, something Smith noted in his email to team reps. "Obviously, we have not been a part of those discussions," he wrote.
NFL Network reporter Albert Breer, NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora, NFL.com senior writer Steve Wyche and The Associated Press contributed to this report.