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NFL players own worst enemies

Dear NFL players, good luck the next time you want to sue the NFL owners to protect your rights and the money you make. Based on how you just treated the named plaintiffs in the Tom Brady(notes) et al v. the NFL antitrust lawsuit – you know, the guys who stuck their necks out for the rest of the players – nobody else is ever going to want to do that again.

Certainly not a prominent player, not a star. Certainly not a player whose mere presence might show that your "union" (and, by extension, all of you) is actually powerful. Then again, this is why when it comes to the business of the NFL, players are sheep and not shepherds.

As the owners and players negotiate a settlement of this thorny labor impasse, the players have reverted to the form that has made them so weak for decades. Instead of standing in for the greater good and taking care of the very guys who put their names on the line, NFL players dropped the ball and are running back to their jobs.

At least that's the way it's playing out.

When it came to an apparent request from Logan Mankins(notes) or Vincent Jackson(notes), the rest of the players trampled them like Jerome Bettis running over a cornerback. When it came to fighting so Jackson, Mankins, Peyton Manning(notes) and Drew Brees(notes) wouldn't be slapped with the "franchise" tag (a device that drastically holds down salaries), those guys got as much support as Rupert Murdoch at a privacy seminar.

Not only did these guys not get so much as a "thank you," you had players like Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe(notes) calling some of them "douche bags" in a tweet. (As an aside, Chris, you're a pretty clever guy and I loved the "Downfall" parody, but you missed the boat on your tweet.)

Sure, most people will look at the named plaintiffs in the Brady case and say, "Those guys are fine, let's get back to work." Certainly, anxious fans waiting to plop down their cash for season tickets and/or DirecTV aren't worried. To hell with some rich player, most of you say. Give me football.

Fair enough, you just want to be entertained and you don't really care about who's being caged. Sadly, most NFL players are more than happy to jump in the cage, even if it means locking themselves into a bad future.

Don't take this the wrong way: The collective bargaining agreement the players are negotiating with the owners looks to be OK. There's some bad and some good. That's the nature of most deals, particularly in a sport where the players don't really want to fight that hard.

But therein lies the point. For all the toughness you see from NFL players, when it comes to really battling for their future, they just don't get it. Their treatment of the plaintiffs in this case is a prime example.

The Brady class of plaintiffs was historic in its strength. The fact that the top three quarterbacks in the league put their names on the line can't be overstated. It was a phenomenal show of strength, a move that said much about the character of those men and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith's leadership. Never before in the history of the NFL has any quarterback stepped up like that. Not Otto Graham, not Johnny Unitas, not Joe Montana, not John Elway and not Dan Marino, even though all of them had chances to do it. The closest the NFL has gotten to a star quarterback being a great union man was Boomer Esiason.

The reason for that is obvious: Quarterbacks are usually about as close to management as it gets. More than the owners, they are the face of almost every team in the league. Union matters are usually of little consequence to the great ones.

Not this year. This year, Brady, Manning and Brees stood up to the league and, symbolically, kept the players from fraying as the battle went on. In the NFL, players follow the quarterback and that held true for much of this battle. Unlike so many of the other NFL labor battles over the years, the players didn't splinter. Aside from some early comments from Antonio Cromartie(notes), the players were mostly in lock step. It was impressive and the owners took notice.

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Vincent Jackson had 14 receptions and 3 TDs in his brief action with the San Diego Chargers last season.
(Getty Images)

Beyond those quarterbacks, Jackson and Mankins, who have truly been damaged by the previous system, added their names to the lawsuit. Then there was a prominent rookie (Von Miller(notes)), grizzled veteran (and rabble rouser) in Mike Vrabel(notes), along with fellow vets Osi Umenyiora(notes), Ben Leber(notes) and Brian Robison(notes). That's a perfect cross-section of the NFL, from stars to borderline guys.

But when it came time to take care of those plaintiffs or, better yet, use their circumstances for a strategic bit of negotiating, the players fell short.

Way short.

If you're an NFL player, you want Manning as an unrestricted free agent, even if you know he's going to re-sign with the Indianapolis Colts. Same goes for Brees, Jackson and Mankins.

That's because their salaries drive up the market for all players. In this league, what Jackson makes influences what Sidney Rice(notes) can get. Better yet, it influences what Larry Fitzgerald(notes) might get a year from now and so on and so forth. If Manning is able to get a contract worth an average of $25 million a year because he's an unrestricted free agent rather than $20 million a year, that will help Brees when his contract is up after the 2011 season. Manning understands that. Last year in training camp, Manning said he recognizes that his contract has a trickle-down effect on what other players make, and not just quarterbacks.

Furthermore, there was precedent on the side of the players to ask for this. In 1993, all of the plaintiffs in the Reggie White case against the NFL got the benefit of never being allowed to be named a franchise player.

Now, it was unlikely that NFL owners were going to budge on this point with Manning and Brees. Quarterbacks are a different animal. But the fact remains that the players aren't pushing the point. Worse, in the case of Kluwe, they mocked these guys for asking for that or even something else (like maybe some money).

These players deserved better. As nearly 1,900 players prepare to return to work, Brady and the rest of the plaintiffs deserve at least their thanks for taking on the NFL, for standing up for what is right. They probably deserve even more than that. They deserved at least somebody to stand up and say that Kluwe is the misguided one.

Sadly, the plaintiffs have gotten none of that so far.

If you're going to handle people that way, don't be surprised if nobody volunteers for the job again.

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