WASHINGTON - The wait is over. The NFL officially is back in business, collective bargaining agreement and all.
That 4 1/2-month lockout? A thing of the past in every way.
All those players with new contracts who had to sit out practice for a few days? They hit the field with all of their teammates shortly after word spread that football finally had a completely done deal Thursday.
"Were we going to have the opportunity to step on the field today? Was this thing going to linger?" new Minnesota Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb said, explaining his thoughts while waiting for the OK to fully participate. "Good thing we got this thing settled. And now here we are."
Players ratified a new, 10-year CBA on Thursday, hours after it was finalized, and two people familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press the contract allows the NFL to eventually become the first major U.S. professional sports league to use blood testing for human growth hormone.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because no formal announcement had been made about the details of the CBA.
Players 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.
"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."
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.
"Everyone in this game has championed making sure drugs aren't involved in our game. So we are finding our way through this," said Indianapolis Colts centre Jeff Saturday, who was one of the players' key negotiators in recent months. "It hasn't been easy, just understanding all the ins and outs of it."
Most of the deal to end the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 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 player welcomed the new CBA with open arms.
"We felt like it was getting shoved down our throats," Pittsburgh 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."
When the union informed the league that the NFLPA's team reps voted to approve the final agreement, it meant players who signed contracts July 26 or after — and had been forced by NFL rules to sit out practices for days — could 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 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 labour 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 cancelled 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 offences — 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 per cent of one week's pay for a first offence or 50 per cent of a week's pay for a second offence.
The off-field conduct policy remains largely unchanged and in Goodell's hands.
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."