ATLANTA -- The NFL officially notified its players union on Tuesday that it will opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement, which could lead to a season without a salary cap in 2010 and a possible lockout in 2011.
Owners voted unanimously Tuesday morning to opt out of the deal, which was extended in March 2006. The NFL had until November to opt out, but decided to do it early instead of waiting for the deadline.
The league, however, emphasized that it will keep negotiating with the NFL Players Association and said games will be played "without threat of interruption for at least the next three seasons."
"We have guaranteed three more years of NFL football," commissioner Roger Goodell said after the owners used the opt-out clause built into the agreement signed more than two years ago. "We are not in dire straits. We've never said that. But the agreement isn't working, and we're looking to get a more fair and equitable deal."
The decision by the owners was anticipated, although not this early. The 2006 agreement allowed either side to negate the contract by Nov. 8. Goodell said the owners acted early "to get talks rolling."
NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw had been anticipating the early termination of the agreement. He met with owners two weeks ago, and from that meeting he asked for audited financial reports from owners to document their economic problems.
"Roger [Goodell] e-mailed me this morning [and] told me they had a unanimous agreement to terminate the deal," Upshaw said. "My response back to him? 'What a surprise.'"
"All this means is that we will have football now until 2010 and not until 2012," Upshaw added during a conference call. "We will move ahead. This just starts the clock ticking. If we can't reach agreement by 2010, then we go to no man's land, which is 2011."
Players preferred not to think about a work stoppage. Upshaw has said the union won't strike but owners could lock out players if there is no agreement by then.
"It's obviously a legitimate concern, but three years is a long time," Denver cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "Hopefully we can get something done. The most important thing there is nobody who benefits from not having a season, so I think in that time we'll find a way, between the players union and the league, to make it happen."
"Our league has been very prosperous, so any time you're talking about anything that could effect labor, it is a big deal," said Houston kicker Kris Brown, the Texans' union representative. "It's not like the threat of losing a season is imminent, because that's not the case. We're talking about this now but one year from now, two years from now we could come to an agreement and have an extension and all this is for nothing."
Upshaw said Goodell's e-mail listed three reasons for the early termination: high labor costs, problems with the rookie pool and the league's inability, through the interpretation of the courts, to recoup bonuses of players who subsequently breach their contract or refuse to perform.
The highest-profile example of the latter was a court decision allowing Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick to keep $16.5 million in bonus money, despite pleading guilty to federal dogfighting charges and being sentenced to 23 months in federal prison.