Shutdown Corner - NFL

On Monday, several important members of the former players union and NFLPA assistant executive director of external affairs George Atallah, held a media conference call in which they outlined their positions in detail for the first time since the decertification and lockout last Friday. I will be going extensively into those issues later Monday, but I wanted to get a line-by-line summary up so that you can see where the players stand after a solid weekend of invective from the NFL's side.

The players on the call were former Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets and Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae(notes), New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees(notes), and Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday(notes). All three spoke convincingly and eagerly; the players at times taking questions over from Atallah to give their view.

One thing that was perfectly clear from the start of the call — after the appeal decision in the lockout insurance case, and two weeks of mediation that ended last Friday, the players may have their heels dug in even more than before. This is going to the Minnesota District Court on April 6, and though the players (now termed the "class counsel" as opposed to the "players union") could decide to negotiate further with the owners, it would seemingly take a near-miracle for that to happen. These guys are not happy with the way things went, and they want the world to know.

Here, for now, are the salient points of the call.

 Atallah said that the language of the Doty appeal ruling on the lockout insurance case provides potential damages to the players, but that there is no timeline for that to happen. David Doty will not hear the Brady v. NFL case, but he would/will hear arguments re: damages. So, Doty's still involved.

Atallah would not comment on recent reports stating that the players have been encouraged to boycott the draft.

To a man, the players said that whether Doty, Susan Nelson, or Batman hears the antitrust case, it doesn't matter. The law is more important than the judge.

Mawae said that the April 6 court date doesn't matter from a timing perspective — as long as the players can play in the fall, it's irrelevant.

Brees put his name as a primary plaintiff on the Brady case because he wanted to do something meaningful for the players now, before, and in the future.  

As to the NFL's portrayal that the last deal offered to the players split the difference, it's important to remember that the league was attempting to "split the difference" between the $2 billion the owners want off the top of gross revenue now, not the $1 billion they got off the top in the old CBA. Brees said that the last proposal was trying to get back $1.66 billion in the first four years, and "that was only a good deal to them."

Mawae said that of all the misrepresented statements by the NFL, the worst was the claim that the players walked away from the negotiations. Atallah tag-teamed on this as well, saying that the NFL's timeline view was ridiculous, and he half-sarcastically wondered if he should present time-stamped photos of the fax machine used to send the decertification papers so that people would know what happened when.

Mawae said that it was amazing to him that a paid attorney would be like that in public, obviously referring to NFL counsel Jeff Pash, who has been the league's primary mouthpiece through this most recent process. A slew of lawyer jokes immediately hit Twitter when I put that up.

Brees said more than once — this seemed to anger him in particular — that the owners' last proposal was a sham and that the NFL intended to lock the players out all along. He said that the owners were just setting it up so that they could say they tried to act in good faith when that wasn't the case.

The audited financials continue to be the main sticking point. Brees said that because the salary cap is based off revenue, it's like no other business — the players have access to revenue, but not to cost, and even in a horrible economy, the NFL grew 7.5 percent last year. Costs outstripping revenue? Brees said. Show us the books. They say no, that's not how business works. "It's impossible to negotiate a fair deal when you don't know the numbers," he said.

Mawae confirmed the report that the players were willing to take $1 billion in an equity stake instead of cost credits, and the owners refused.

The players were asked more than once why they didn't extend the league year so that they could better review the last offer, and the answers were more general re: the financials and the "sham" nature in perception, but my sense is that the rancor and mistrust had hit the point where there was nothing to be gained by a 24-hour extension, and the players weren't getting enough concessions for a longer extension.

Mawae had this zinger: "Maybe you should ask the owners if they trust each other to see each other's books. Maybe that's the real question."

When asked if there could be negotiations before the April 6 court date, Brees said that "We're going to let the process take course, but are still open to discussions under right circumstances," which basically means 10 years of audited financials. This thing is going straight to court, kids.

Saturday was asked by Mawae to clarify a Peter King report that he and Roger Goodell had dinner last Thursday. Saturday said that everyone from DeMaurice Smith on down knew what he was doing — there was no subterfuge about it — and that he wanted to make sure Goodell knew the players' points of view before time ran out. Saturday also pointed to Pash as a problem, saying that "I wanted to reiterate with [Goodell] our points, since Pash was doing all the talking [in public]."

Finally, Brees on the recent report that Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen had offered to open his books: "Hopefully, the other owners will follow suit."

My quick take on this is that it's impossible to overestimate the degree to which the players' discovery that the owners were selling their revenue down the river to fund a lockout added to the adversarial nature of this process. As fans, analysts, and lovers of the game of football, our best hope is that the courts use the Sherman Act to enjoin the owners from locking the players out, which is what happened in 1989. Then, the NFL played under a court order for three years until the Reggie White Ruling came down, and the free agency which led to the league's unbelievable prosperity began.

If the lockout stands, and these two factions are responsible for keeping the game of football alive … I don't hold out much hope. Despite universal endorsement of the mediation process, it seems that the two sides are further apart than they were before mediation started.

We could be in for a very long ride. More later.

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