NFL owners ratified a proposed collective bargaining agreement Thursday and approved terms of a comprehensive settlement of all litigation involving the league, bringing the lockout close to an end after four months of wrangling.
"It is time to get back to football," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said, announcing the league's move to OK a new 10-year labor agreement. "That is what everyone here wants to do."
So the key is in the lock and ready to be turned, but one obstacle remains.
NFL players have yet to vote on the proposal and could still opt not to ratify it. They had a conference call scheduled for Thursday night but didn't hold a vote and it was unclear where the vote would fall when it happens.
Owners were said to have given the players until Tuesday to vote. Goodell said he spoke with NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith after the owners moved to ratify.
"He's going to go take care of his business," said Goodell.
One indication of what could happen came from Ryan Clark, a safety and player representative for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who tweeted a cautious message soon after the owners voted to ratify.
"The owners want u to believe that they have been extremely fair everywhere and this is their 'olive branch' to finalize it. Media mind games," he wrote.
As for the actual vote, media reports say the measure passed by a 31-0 margin with Raiders owner Al Davis abstaining.
In the timeline laid out by the league:
- Players would be able to begin voluntary workouts at team facilities on Saturday if they approve terms of the settlement
- The NFL calendar and free agency signing would start July 27 at 2 p.m. (et)
- Training camps for all teams would also open July 27, but Day 1 activities would be limited to physicals, meetings, and conditioning; players would practice without pads on Days 2 and 3.
The tight schedule meant the NFL had to cancel the Hall of Fame Game on August 7 between the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams. The traditional start of the preseason takes place in Canton, Ohio, the day after the enshrinement ceremony, which Goodell said will still take place.
"There's an urgency to this," Goodell said. "We want to have a full 2011 season. That includes the four preseason games and we're up against the wall. I think that's indicated by the unfortunate cancellation of the Hall of Fame Game."
Under the proposal ratified by the league on Thursday, there is also no change to the 16-game regular season schedule and four-game preseason slate until at least 2013.
One of the biggest sticking points in the labor talks had been negotiations about a rookie wage scale. The proposal includes four-year contracts for rookies with a team option for a fifth year and salary caps for draft classes.
The proposal sets an overall salary cap plus benefits at $142.4 million per team ($120.375 million for salary and bonuses) in 2011 and at least that amount over the next two years.
Teams are committed to spending 99 percent of the cap in 2011-12 and at least 95 percent for the remainder of the 10-year agreement.
Revenue sharing was also a prickly issue, and the proposal says players will receive 55 percent of national media revenue, 45 percent of NFL Ventures revenue and 40 percent of local club revenue.
A news release from the NFL -- which included comments from Goodell, a schedule for starting the season and bullet points explaining the proposal -- was nearly four pages long.
Other details of the ratified proposal included:
- Changes to promote player health and safety, including the limiting of on- field practice time and contact, increasing the number of off-days for players, and the opportunity for players to remain in their medical plan for life
- Changes to retirement benefits, including additional funding of between $900 million and $1 billion -- including $620 million for a new "Legacy Fund" devoted to increasing pensions for pre-1993 players.
"It includes many positive changes that emerged from a spirit of compromise rooted in doing what is best for the game and players," Goodell said of the proposal.
The commissioner praised Smith, the union head, and the players involved in negotiations for their "skill and professionalism" in negotiations.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said the owners "did some things I know will help grow this league." Giants owner John Mara said owners didn't get everything they wanted out of the deal, but that the players "would probably say the same thing."
"Usually when that happens," said Mara, "it means that it's a fair deal."
The lockout, which began March 12, is the league's first work stoppage since 1987.