Shutdown Corner - NFL

It’s probably bad form to bring this up in the middle of the playoff crunch, but we’re 50 days away from the March 3 deadline for a renewal of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement that would prevent the lockout that has run like the weird, sad soundtrack to the most-watched pro football season ever. We know that the owners are dug in on certain things, like a rookie wage scale, an 18-game season, and an 18 percent cost offset off the top of annual gross revenue.

But when Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth(notes), Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita(notes), and NFLPA assistant executive director George Atallah participated in a media conference call today, we got quite a bit further inside the minds of the players in this fight. I wanted to hit some of the high points, just so you could get a feel for how far apart the two sides still seem to be.

-- In what may be the most unreal consequence of the players’ health insurance running out in the event of a lockout, there are pregnant players’ wives asking Fujita if they should induce labor before the lockout. When Goodell was given these concerns months ago by the players, his response was, “Well, you’ll want to get something done (in the CBA) then, won’t you?" I’m really surprised someone didn’t punch his lights out for that one.

-- Both Fujita and Foxworth agreed that both the letter and spirit of the new player safety rules are confusing at best and completely arbitrary at worst. Fujita: “We had a meeting in which we were shown legal and illegal hits on film, and we walked out of there more confused than when we went in.”

-- All three men agreed that the current provision for health insurance five years after a player retires is ridiculous, because of the proof that for many players, post-play symptoms can take up to a decade to manifest.

-- For those angry at the players for the idea of no football, Fujita and Foxworth wanted people to understand that it’s the owners that are locking the players out in this scenario. Of course, the players want to go back to work in a “business-as-usual” scenario, and that’s not going to happen, but it’s important to remember that not only are the owners in full charge of whether football is played after March 3, but owners like Jerry Jones actually believe that a lockout would not be devastating to the league. To which Fujita replied: “That’s the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever heard.”

-- The upcoming Special Master decision about lockout insurance was something that Atallah couldn’t talk much about because it’s an ongoing legal proceeding, but here’s the short version: The NFLPA is arguing that the owners negotiated in bad faith, going with lower up-front profits on both sides in the most recent network deals  to insure that the league would be covered with some semblance of TV money in the event of a lockout. If the Special Master rules that this is so, whatever “war chest” might be put in an escrow account. It would then be an entirely new ballgame as far as negotiations are concerned as the majority of owners don’t have the scratch to keep the lights on at even a minimal level without TV money, and the loss of profits would most likely affect their other business interests.

-- I asked the last question as a hypothetical, and I was very intrigued by the response: In the event of a lockout, is there anything, legal or otherwise, preventing the players from either taking over the UFL, or starting an alternate league to play in 2011? Fujita’s response: “Would we do that? Maybe. Will we do that? I don’t know.” Foxworth added, in a way that seemed to say, “you fill in the blanks,” that an unemployed man is going to look for work.

Personally, I don’t think an alternate league is as crazy as some might think – given the record ratings for football, you have to believe that guys like Mark Cuban would be falling all over themselves to get in on such a thing. I have always thought that such a move would, short of a Supreme Court ruling, be the ultimate lockout-buster.

The NFLPA may have to decertify before such a move would be legal, but they may do that anyway to facilitate an antitrust suit, the responses I received told me that this probably wasn’t the first time somebody’s talked about it.

You can definitely consider this conference call a specific landmark in NFL labor negotiations. We're about to go down the rabbit hole...

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