NFL players ratify new CBA

Updated: August 5, 2011, 11:04 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

NFL players ratified a new, 10-year collective bargaining agreement Thursday, hours after it was finalized, and the contract allows the NFL to become the first major U.S. professional sports league to use blood testing for human growth hormone, a source familiar with the talks told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

The Steelers were the only team to vote against ratification, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

Players eventually would be subject to random testing for HGH, in addition to annual checks -- as is the case for all banned substances in the league's drug-testing program -- only after the union is confident in the way the testing and appeals process will work.

The aim is to have everything worked out in time to start HGH testing by Week 1 of the regular season, but that is not guaranteed.

"We have to see if we agree with the test," Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "If we agree with the test, then it's legit. If not, they have to come up with another one."

An NFLPA source told Schefter that players won't agree to the testing unless they get other big changes in the drug program.

Players likely will also be able to appeal suspensions under the drug policy to an independent arbitrator.

Tennessee Titans union representative Jake Scott said he is skeptical of the accuracy of the testing because he believes there is only one company that can accurately test for HGH.

Scott is for the testing in principle, but said the testing company's "motives are questionable. Their incentive is to catch people. If they don't catch anybody, nobody thinks their test works."

Most of the deal to end the NFL's 4½-month lockout was agreed to last month, but certain elements still needed to be ironed out after the NFL Players Association re-established itself as a union. The union -- which dissolved itself in March, when the old CBA expired, allowing players to sue the league in federal court -- was again formed by last weekend. Final CBA language was in place Thursday afternoon in talks between the sides' lawyers in Washington.

Not every team welcomed the new CBA with open arms. According to the Post-Gazette, the Steelers voted against the agreement because they did not believe it adequately dealt with the NFL's system of fines on and off the field.

"We felt like it was getting shoved down our throats," Steelers offensive tackle Willie Colon said. "Our players reps (weren't) comfortable with it ... We're not going to just file it away the way other teams do."

Before 5 p.m. ET, players voted to approve the final agreement. That allowed players who signed contracts July 26 or after -- and had been forced to sit out practices by NFL rules -- to finally join teammates in drills Thursday, as the new "league year" officially began.

"We were like little kids in Pop Warner who didn't make weight, just standing around," said Donovan McNabb, who restructured his contract when he was traded to Minnesota by the Washington Redskins.

A little after 5 p.m., the NFL's website about the labor dispute was shut down. Later Thursday evening, the federal court in Minnesota that was the venue for the antitrust suit filed by Tom Brady and other players, as well as a TV networks "lockout insurance" case, officially deemed those cases dismissed.

As a final, formal step, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith will sign the CBA at the front steps of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on Friday morning. That's where the only game canceled by the lockout was supposed to be played Sunday between the Bears and Rams.

Among the CBA elements that were settled this week: parameters for penalties associated with on-field discipline and new disability program guidelines. Under a new neuro-cognitive disability benefit, for example, players do not have to prove that their mental disability was related to playing football.

For on-field offenses -- which grabbed headlines last season when the league made a point of enforcing existing rules about illegal hits more strictly -- the NFLPA must be consulted before a player is suspended or fined more than $50,000. And players now will be able to argue on appeal that a fine is excessive if it exceeds 25 percent of one week's pay for a first offense or 50 percent of a week's pay for a second offense.

The off-field conduct policy remains largely unchanged and in Goodell's hands, a source told Schefter.

The most significant new item in Thursday's agreement, though, is the HGH testing, which was the last topic holding things up.

Goodell has been keen to have players tested for HGH, saying in an interview with the AP in August 2010: "It's about the integrity of the game."

"We think it's important to have HGH testing, to make sure we ensure that we can take performance-enhancing substances out of the game," Goodell said then.

Preventing athletes from using HGH is considered a key target in the anti-doping movement. The substance is hard to detect, and athletes are believed to choose HGH for a variety of benefits, whether they be real or only perceived -- including increasing speed and improving vision.

Last year, Major League Baseball implemented random blood testing for HGH in the minors, making it the first U.S. professional sports league to take that aggressive step against doping. Baseball was able to impose that on players with minor league contracts because they are not members of the players' association, which means blood testing is not subject to collective bargaining.

Gary Wadler, who until this year led the World Anti-Doping Agency's committee that considers which substances should be banned in sports, cautioned Thursday that it will be important to find out the specifics that eventually are agreed to by the NFL and players.

"You can get a sound bite out of saying the NFL and NFLPA have adopted a blood-testing policy. You can say, 'That's pretty good,' and forget the rest of the story," Wadler said in a telephone interview. "But the devil's in the details. The rest of the story might be equivalent to having no testing at all."

ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, NFL blogger Paul Kuharsky and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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