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Players won’t do better than this

Splitting $9 billion with the hired help can’t be an easy thing to do, so maybe NFL owners weren’t entirely out of line when they voted to approve a new agreement with players and summarily declared labor peace was finally at hand.

That it seemed to come as a surprise to the players themselves soon will become a moot point. Despite tough talk to the contrary, there’s no way players who are about to begin missing some substantial paychecks will vote down a contract nowhere near as draconian as was feared when owners first put up padlocks and declared they would change the way the league does business.

Millionaire players will still get their millions, though Cam Newton and other rookies will take a haircut in their contracts. There’s an attractive injury protection clause and the prospect of guaranteed medical coverage for life.

The idea of an 18-game regular-season schedule has been put aside for now. And, perhaps best of all, players will get more time off during the offseason.

Aside from getting guaranteed contracts — something the owners would rather shut down the league than offer — the players didn’t come out too badly. The percentage of revenue they get will go down slightly, but the brunt of that decline will be in contracts for rookies not even in the league yet, and new TV deals will help grow the overall pot anyway.

The owners, though, might have done even better. That’s why they were in a big rush to vote, and an even bigger rush to let fans know what they voted for.

They’re getting a contract unprecedented in length, buying themselves labor peace for the next decade with terms that almost ensure they make money — and lots of it. The deal allows them to save many millions in salaries for unproven rookies, locks up draft picks for at least four years and includes strong rules against contract holdouts.

More important, it includes a hard salary cap based on revenue percentages that will keep free-spending owners in line while allowing teams in smaller markets to compete with those in major markets. That’s a competition model that has helped make the NFL by far the nation’s favorite sport.

Little wonder that 31 billionaires who probably couldn’t agree on where to go to dinner all voted in favor of the proposed deal. The only abstention came from Al Davis, the Raiders’ owner who doesn’t really count anyway because he seldom goes along with anything his fellow owners like.

Declaring it a done deal on Thursday was the owners’ way of making sure they get a deal. They even offered to open training facilities today to players under contract if the NFL Players Association’s executive committee recommends approval to the 1,900 players who will have the final say on the proposed pact.

Smart moves both, making sure that the onus is now on players who undoubtedly were growing increasingly anxious as the time for training camps grew ever closer. NFLPA leaders said they were studying the written proposal Friday, but it’s now basically take it or leave it.

Packers president Mark Murphy told local reporters on a conference call Thursday night that the league not only is confident it has a deal, but is done negotiating.

“We’ve put our pens down,” Murphy said. “We’ve negotiated in good faith with the union. We’ve reached an agreement on all the key points.”

We all should be grateful for that, because for a long time it didn’t look like the two sides would agree on anything. Owners who thought they had been fleeced in the last negotiation were determined to make big changes in the way players got paid, and players were equally determined to try to hold on to most — if not all — of the lucrative slice of the $9 billion pie they had carved out for themselves.

In the end, the biggest thing the players gave up was the easiest thing they could give up — contracts for players not yet in the league. Gone will be the days of JaMarcus Russell getting $31.5 million in guaranteed money before playing a down, with Murphy estimating rookie salaries could be cut 30 to 40 percent under the new deal. Even that was softened, though, by an agreement to take some of the money teams save in rookie signings and put it in a pool for veteran player performance and benefits to current and retired players.

Yes, 10 years is an awful long time to commit to a deal. But this is a contract players can live with. It’s a contract they can — and will — vote for.

Let’s hope it happens quickly. Because the next decade in the NFL can’t start soon enough.

Tim Dahlberg is a Las Vegas-based national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg.

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