WASHINGTON - Now it can be said with certainty: Get ready for some football!
NFL players voted to OK a final deal Monday, days after the owners approved a tentative agreement, and the sides finally managed to put an end to the 4½-month lockout, the longest work stoppage in league history.
"This is a long time coming, and football's back," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, "and that's the great news for everybody."
At a joint appearance outside the NFL Players Association headquarters, Goodell and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith were flanked by some of the owners and players who were involved in the talks. They spoke shortly after the NFLPA executive board and 32 team reps voted unanimously to approve the terms of a deal.
"We didn't get everything that either side wanted ... but we did arrive at a deal that we think is fair and balanced," Smith said.
Owners overwhelmingly approved a proposal Thursday, but some unresolved issues still needed to be reviewed to satisfy players; the owners do not need to vote again.
The sides worked through the weekend and wrapped up the details Monday morning on a final pact that runs for 10 years, without an opt-out clause, a person familiar with the deal told the AP on condition of anonymity.
Owners decided in 2008 to opt out of the league's old labor contract, which expired March 11. That's when the owners locked out the players, creating the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987.
"I know it has been a very long process since the day we stood here that night in March," Smith said. "But our guys stood together when nobody thought we would. And football is back because of it."
As he spoke, Smith was flanked by NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Colts center Jeff Saturday and Ravens defensive back Domonique Foxworth, key members of the players' negotiating team.
Brees was one of 10 plaintiffs in the antitrust lawsuit that players filed against the league. Those plaintiffs approved the deal, two people familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
"I believe it's important that we talk about the future of football as a partnership," Smith said.
Moments later, Goodell walked into the building, joined by owners Bob Kraft of the New England Patriots, John Mara of the New York Giants and Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers.
Kraft apologized to fans for having to wait out the labor turmoil.
"The end result is we've been able to have an agreement that I think is going to allow this sport to flourish over the next decade," Kraft said.
A tentative timeline would allow NFL clubs to start signing 2011 draft picks and rookie free agents on Tuesday. Conversations with veteran free agents also could start Tuesday, and their signings could begin Friday.
Under the proposed schedule, training camps would open for 10 of the 32 teams on Wednesday, 10 more on Thursday, another 10 on Friday, and the last two teams on Sunday.
Both sides set up informational conference calls for Monday afternoon to go over the details of the agreement. The NFLPA told player agents they would be coached in particular on the guidelines and schedule for signing free agents and rookies; the NFL alerted general managers and coaches they would be briefed in separate calls.
The major economic framework for the deal was worked out more than a week ago.
That included how the more than $9 billion in annual league revenues will be divided (about 53 percent to owners and 47 percent to players over the next decade; the old CBA resulted in nearly a 50-50 split); a per-club cap of about $120 million for salary and bonuses in 2011 and at least that in 2012 and 2013 plus about $22 million for benefits; a salary system to rein in spending on first-round draft picks; and unrestricted free agency for most players after four seasons.
CBSSports.com's Clark Judge says that the turning point in the whole process was either the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals' support of the permanent stay of U.S. District Court Judge Susan Nelson's injunction lifting the lockout, or it's the Eighth Circuit's verdict that failed to lift the lockout.
"Normally, you'd say it's the latter," Judge writes, "but the court went so far in its first decision it told us -- and NFL players -- what was going to happen next."