Players show sign of cracking in dispute

As many as 70 "mid-tier" NFL players have committed to working with a law firm to demand a seat at the NFL lockout negotiating table, according to the Sports Business Journal. The players reportedly don't feel their interests are being properly represented by the current NFL Players Association leadership.

It's the first sign of a possible rift inside the player's association and thus a potentially significant development in a labor battle which, until now, was defined mostly by unity on each side. Who cracks first often determines winners and losers in these battles and this may be the start.

For football fans that don't care who prevails, it may – may – be the start of the end of the labor mess that threatens games next September.

The news comes from Daniel Kaplan of the SBJ, who cites anonymous sources on what is actually a fairly arcane development – we're essentially talking about the internal procedures of a labor union that is currently decertified and thus technically doesn't exist. Forget the details, though. The issue is that this would be a sign that the players are fracturing. Unless the union can pull everyone together, it could weaken union resolve before any of the real heavy, tense fighting even begins.

While the players are unlikely to just fall apart – they are still confident Federal Judge Susan Nelson could grant an injunction against the lockout as early as this week (the league would immediately appeal) – this is not a positive development.

Player unrest is something NFL owners were counting on when they began the lockout last month. It's unlikely even the most optimistic owner dreamt it would happen this soon.

While the NFL labor dispute – a fight over how the two sides split $9-plus billion – is often classified as a battle between billionaires and millionaires, everyone inside of football knows that isn't entirely the case. There's a sizeable group of players that don't make or have millions and are either incapable or unwilling to get into a war of attrition with the better heeled owners.

New England quarterback Tom Brady(notes), the lead plaintiff in an antitrust suit against the NFL, has a huge contract, a slew of endorsements and a supermodel wife who makes millions more. He can fight for a long time. The anonymous second-year guy coming off the practice squad earning a few hundred grand can't or won't.

The league knows this. Part of its strategy is to see if the players have the stomach for a protracted battle. The owners are all fabulously wealthy and their chief bargaining chip is that they'll be far less affected by missed games (and thus, for players, paychecks). The longer this goes, the tougher it gets for the NFLPA.

Most troubling for the union is that the lockout hasn't even gone on very long. It's less than six weeks old and other than cancelled free agency, almost nothing has been missed, including in-season salary. The NFL draft is still scheduled for next Thursday in New York.

According to SBJ however, lower-paid players feel that the current NFLPA negotiating team isn't operating in their best interest, presumably fearful that a new deal would protect high-profile players more than the rank-and-file. They are willing to go to court to demand their own seat at the table.

Not only would this complicate federally mandated mediations – currently delayed until May 16 and fairly hopeless even without the addition of a third voice – it questions the authority of current union leader DeMaurice Smith.

"[Players] have [a seat]," Mike Vrabel(notes) of the Kansas City Chiefs told the NFL Network on Wednesday outside of the final mediation session in Minneapolis. "That's why we're here. That's why [Minnesota's] Ben [Leber] and I are here. We're players here to represent players and De works for us. They do [have a seat]. And if they're unhappy with that seat, we have to vote in a new executive committee, and a new board of reps."

Owners Jerry Richardson (right), Jerry Jones (center) and NFL attorney Bob Batterman leave mediation.
(Getty Images)

How you'd vote in a new executive council and board of reps for a union that legally no longer exists is one question. The NFLPA is now officially a "professional trade organization with the mission of supporting the interests and rights of current and former professional football players." In that case, does Smith really work for the players? Or is the NFLPA still a union?

For the non-legally inclined, the more germane question is whether Smith, who thus far has held the 1,800-person ship together, can weather this storm.

Having one group of players ostensibly sue another group of players isn't exactly the unity needed to survive a rough-and-tumble labor negotiation. Even before talks in Washington, D.C., broke down in early March, individual players (most notably Antonio Cromartie(notes) of the New York Jets) made statements contrary to the union. And last week reported players from at least 16 teams have taken on high-interest (18-24 percent) "lockout loans" to cover costs.

Now we have this, a far bigger group of players reportedly making a far more significant power play.

This isn't going to end the lockout but it's a controversy that the owners will no doubt enjoy and watch closely.

Eventually one side was going to blink and break. The smart money was the first signs coming in July or August, not the middle of April.