Enjoy the NFL while it lasts. In the current form, that means up until 2021.

NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith sounded the alarm last week and players’ union president Eric Winston echoed his sentiments as well on Tuesday, saying a prolonged work stoppage could be in the cards.

Most observers believe that the NFL has the weakest of the unions in professional sports and that the owners continually get the better of the deals when the sides go to the bargaining table in trying to reach new labor agreements every several years. The labor strife that forced the owners to lock the players out in 2011 ended before any games except the Hall of Fame game were missed. Simply put, according to NFLPA executive George Atallah, the work stoppage would have gone on longer if the players had saved up.

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Winston is telling the players not to let this happen again and is warning them that they need to be prepared for a long fight once the current collective bargaining agreement expires in four years. The lockout in 2011 lasted 132 days.

“It’s not something that we can spring on them in 2020 and say, ‘You guys got to get ready for this,’” Winston said to Keenan Singleton of WCPO TV in Cincinnati. Winston is a 12-year veteran lineman for the Bengals.

“We try to educate those guys as soon as we get them. DeMaurice Smith 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.”

Smith said last week that “the likelihood of either a strike or a lockout is almost a virtual certainty.”

The big issue once again will be the money split between the owners and the players. The $14 billion generated in revenue last year was more than any other sport. Many players have called for more guaranteed money and want owners to dole out guaranteed contracts, much like basketball and baseball players receive.

Of course, there are 53 active NFL players and less than half of that in baseball and less than 30 percent of that in the NBA. There are also many more games in both leagues than there are in the NFL.

Winston has been the union president since March 2014, and said he was “blindsided” in 2011 when it was perceived that most fans sided with management during the last labor settlement.

“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.’”

Recent disputes involving player discipline with Adrian Peterson, Tom Brady and now Ezekiel Elliott have also furthered the divide between the league and the NFLPA. One of the 2011 concessions on behalf of the players was giving commissioner Roger Goodell the ability to be judge, jury and bailiff when it came to player discipline.

Winston says a work stoppage in 2021 is “inevitable”. So enjoy your NFL for the next four years; it might not be the same afterward.

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