CINCINNATI – To listen to Eric Winston, you shouldn’t be surprised if it's FC Cincinnati – not the Cincinnati Bengals – playing in Paul Brown Stadium in 20 years.
As president of the NFL players union, the 12th-year Bengals tackle has a unique perspective on the future of pro football. Winston not only says players and fans should get ready for a lockout when the 10-year collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021, he thinks another round of labor strife like 2011 could kill the goose that laid the golden egg.
But if the NFL doesn’t survive, it’s no big deal to him or to any other current Bengals players, Winston told WCPO's Keenan Singleton Monday.
“Honestly I don’t care and I don’t think the guys in this locker room care whether this thing’s going to be around in 20 years because none of us are going to be playing,” Winston said. "So if these guys (the owners) want to own for a long time, then they can own for a long time. But another work stoppage might kill the golden goose."
Shorter term, though, Winston does care that his fellow players - especially rookies - prepare for what Winson believes will be an “inevitable” work stoppage in 2021.
“These rookies that are here now are going to be in the middle of that. They need to understand what they’re getting into, what they need to prepare for,” Winston said. “We have to prepare for that outcome because that’s what happened the last time.”
In 2011, the owners got the better of the players in negotiations after a 132-day lockout. No games were lost, except the preseason Hall of Fame Game, but many players weren't steeled for the prospect of losing their paychecks. The work stoppage may have lasted longer if players had saved up, according to NFLPA executive George Atallah.
Winston said the union tries to prepare the young players “through education.”
“We try to educate those guys as soon as we get them,” he said. “DeMaurice Smith (NFLPA executive director) and myself, we’ll have meetings with them this year. We introduce those topics and continue to educate. Obviously it falls on the leaders in the locker room – Clint Boling, Vinnie Rey, those guys that are (union) reps - it falls on them to answer a lot of questions …
“It’s not something that we can spring on them in 2020 and say, 'You guys got to get ready for this.’ “
The big issue, as always, is the money split between owners and players, Winston agreed. Players want a bigger share of the $14 billion in revenue that came in last year - more than any other sport. Some big-name players have called for more guaranteed money and want NFL owners to fall in line with baseball and basketball, where most player contracts are guaranteed.
“You’re always going to have the split of the money, the structure of the deal, how guys get paid, the cash guarantees, offseason, health and safety … “ Winston said. “There’s always going to be issues between labor and management.”
Winston said it’s also inevitable that most fans will side with management. He admitted he was shocked when that happened in 2011.
“My personal theory is they think they have a stake in the team. We saw it play out. I was as blindsided by it as probably anybody,” Winston said.
“You think you’re going to go on the radio and convince the fans - most fans have a boss and they’re working men, too - but they don’t look at this the same way. They don’t look at issues the way we look at issues - wages, hours, working conditions. You could talk about the same things in a coal miners’ meeting as we do in our meetings and at the end of the day it boils down to those topics.
“I think fans look at the team and say that’s their team. They have an ownership and that’s why you are always hearing fans say, ‘Oh, the salary cap.” They think they're kind of general managers, and obviously fantasy football plays into that …
“I don’t know if that’s right or not. That’s always been my working theory as to why fans tend to side with ownership. They don’t look like it like, ‘We’re workers and they’re workers.’ They look at it like, ‘Oh, that’s my team. Whether it's that player or another player, it's still going to be my team and I want them to win and I don’t really care who’s doing the winning.’"