Draft is fair game if labor dispute continues

Michael Silver
Yahoo! Sports

Though the NFL is in the midst of its most significant labor clash in two decades and the owners have locked out the players, the league is planning to stage next month's NFL draft as if all is well in paradise. And it turns out the recently decertified NFL Players Association is encouraging prospective draftees not to play along with the charade.

The horror!

From what I gather, this is very, very upsetting to many of you. The draft, in the eyes of millions of NFL fans, is like Christmas in April. You're a sucker for the sight of that former collegiate star hearing his name called, hugging his mom, taking the sweet walk up to the lectern, getting a hearty handshake from commissioner Roger Goodell and slipping on that fresh ball cap bearing his new team's logo.

I hear you, football fans. And I wish I could offer you some sympathy. But with all due respect to your denial-fueled desires – OK, maybe with some disrespect thrown in – this is one draft that absolutely needs to turn chilly.

Sorry, but we're dealing with something a bit bigger than an altered viewing experience. This is a charged action that has cut off the income streams of approximately 1,700 players, and the notion that they'd sit back passively and pretend they're not fighting for their livelihoods is incredibly naïve.

Labor disputes are messy. Even when the workers in question command exceptionally high salaries, strikes and lockouts are accompanied by heated rhetoric, threats and frayed feelings that take years to heal. Those of us who remember the NFL player strikes of 1982 and '87 know that there's nothing civil about this kind of stare down.

When workers can't or won't go to work, violence sometimes ensues. Compared to some of the tactics employed by dispossessed (or, in this case, decertified) unions, suggesting to soon-to-be new NFL employees that they turn down an invitation to Radio City Music Hall is remarkably tame.

Nonetheless, doing so accomplishes one of the primary goals of striking or locked-out workers – creating an uncomfortable situation that puts pressure on management to settle.

Here's a four-word assessment of that strategy: No business as usual. While currying public favor is a positive for workers in such situations, sometimes it's even more important to cause a disruption that illustrates the intensity of their struggle.

If I were advising the players, I'd try to get popular quarterbacks like Tom Brady(notes), Peyton Manning(notes) and Drew Brees(notes) – all plaintiffs in the antitrust suit filed last Friday against the league – to join menacing defenders such as Ray Lewis(notes), Troy Polamalu(notes) and Jared Allen(notes) in a show of force outside Radio City during the three-day draft.

While there are some laws restricting employees of a decertified union from certain types of picketing, these men have a constitutional right to assemble and protest the lockout, and nothing would stop them from staring down the prospective draftees entering the building. Most agents I know wouldn't put their clients in position to cross a de facto picket line of future peers, and any player who chose to walk that gauntlet would undoubtedly do so under the glare of television cameras, drawing attention to the players' cause.

Instead, according to si.com's Peter King, it appears as though veteran players will counterprogram the draft by staging a party of their own in a nearby New York City ballroom. In theory, prominent rookies-to-be would instead attend this gathering and, upon being drafted, would receive hugs from a new teammate or teammates onstage. It's a shrewd idea, and one that I expect will be largely successful in luring high-profile draftees. Look for the NFLPA (though now technically a trade association) to cut a creative broadcast deal for the event in the coming days.

That brings us to our second reason that players should urge draftees not to attend the league's official draft gathering: Though Goodell is a good, well-meaning commissioner who has tried hard to cut a deal for labor peace, the handshakes he'd be giving out at the lectern might as well be made with icicles in place of fingers. Seconds later, the drafted player will enter a reality in which he is locked out – unable to visit his new team's facility, communicate with coaches or participate in any activities.

And that, football fans, is where the sham ends: Absent an injunction to stop the lockout of non-unionized employees (the first hearing is scheduled for April 6), there'll be no private jet to whisk the player to his new home, no rookie minicamp and no contract talks.

That whole my-team-just-got-so-much-better fantasy that people buy into during the draft? If the lockout continues and the two sides don't negotiate an agreement, you can pretty much press pause on that daydream.

Granted, many NFL fans don't like their fantasies disrupted until the last possible minute. But with a lockout in place, draft coverage will already have been compromised. The only trades allowed will be those exclusively involving picks, as active players such as Carson Palmer(notes), Donovan McNabb(notes) and Albert Haynesworth(notes) can't be moved.

Boring.

Realistically, a draft featuring player-initiated disruption and/or pageantry could make for far more intriguing television than what we normally get from ESPN and the NFL Network. Fans should want a boycott in some form or other, if only to shake things up and add some suspense.

But this is The Draft, you say – the holiest of holies, the one offseason event that must not be polluted under any circumstances.

Well, actually, that's not true, either.

In the absence of a collective bargaining agreement, the draft is kind of … how shall I say this gently? … illegal. The notion that a person trying to ply his trade can be denied the opportunity to negotiate his/her services on the open market – in this case, that he is prohibited from signing with 31 of the NFL's 32 franchises – isn't simply un-American; it's also a violation of federal law.

Given that the NFL is essentially a monopoly, allowing a team to secure an entering player's exclusive rights – and, given the current slotting system, to set his approximate salary – this amounts to a clear-cut restraint of trade and constitutes an antitrust violation. Similar arguments were applied by major league baseball player Curt Flood, whose legal fight led to the abolishment of the "reserve clause" in the 1970s and ushered in the era of free agency in professional sports. You might think there are passionate counter-arguments, but a judge is not likely to agree.

In fact, the controversy over the upcoming draft would likely be moot if not for a stipulation in the recently expired CBA that this year's draft would proceed as scheduled. Otherwise, the players would have had an excellent chance of convincing a judge to disallow it. And if there's still no CBA a year from April, even if the players are successful in blocking the lockout and the owners merely impose rules while the two sides wage their fight over the antitrust lawsuit, you can forget about a draft happening in 2012.

Goodell with Bradford during last year's draft.
(Howard Smith/US Presswire)

Incidentally, for those of you wondering whether the draft is as awesome and special for the incoming players as you think it is, answer me this question: How much do you think Andrew Luck would make if teams were allowed to bid openly for his services next spring? Think Sam Bradford(notes) numbers, only about 60 percent higher.

Hopefully for the majority of football fans, it won't come to that, and by 2012 the two sides will have hammered out a new CBA which allows the draft to continue in all its fantastic splendor. A deal between the players and owners, of course, is likely to include a rookie wage scale, making first-time contracts like Bradford's a thing of the past. So Luck may not turn out to be so lucky after all.

I've seen it suggested that because of the impending wage scale, prospective rookies who get invited to next month's draft should ignore the NFLPA's recommendation and show up at Radio City after all. That might serve as a helpful rationalization, but the bottom line is that the players who are currently locked out are also fighting for a better working reality for those who come after them, and the Cam Newtons of the world will soon be thrust into the fray.

The newbies can enter that messy landscape in the good graces of their veteran teammates, or they can go in with a brand-new ball cap, Goodell's handprint and the enduring animosity of guys like Lewis and James Harrison(notes).

If the draftees share the viewpoint of the recently decertified union's executive director that personal safety is non-negotiable, I have a pretty good idea which option they'll choose.

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