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Superstar Brees stepping up in NFLPA's lockout threat battle

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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Drew Brees ran the boldest play of his career last January. It was well-executed and perfectly designed, but it may still lead to a huge defeat. We don't know yet.

An op-ed appeared in the Washington Post under his name, opposing the NFL's stand in a Supreme Court case. It appeared early in the postseason, when an athlete would be most vulnerable to accusations that he allowed politics to become a distraction. The justices ended up unanimously supporting the quarterback's position, agreeing that the league was pushing to become a monopoly, but that decision was just the first quarter of a larger game.

Drew Brees is bringing his high profile to the NFL's labor fight. (AP)  
Drew Brees is bringing his high profile to the NFL's labor fight. (AP)  
Brees is one of the leaders in the NFL Players Association, currently fighting the threat of a lockout and fending off major concessions. In essence, Brees has thrown down with an underdog again, just as he chose to sign with the Saints at the lowest point in New Orleans' history.

Having the Super Bowl-winning quarterback as one of the union's staunchest advocates is quite a coup. In most sports, the union reps tend to be second-tier players. For this fight, the NFL Players Association has drawn significant support from elite athletes. Ricky Williams, Brian Dawkins, Jared Allen and, most significantly, a group of starting quarterbacks that includes Tom Brady, all serve as union reps. Brady joined the players' board this year.

Brees is a member of the executive council, and his deep involvement has drawn admiration from players throughout the league.

"You will rarely see a quarterback put himself on the line like that," 49ers linebacker and union rep Takeo Spikes said, praising Brees as he took questions about other teams duplicating the Saints' and Vikings' gesture of raising index fingers in the air to indicate unity among the players.

About 20 years ago, as the players turned to the courts to gain true free agency, the owners created the Quarterback Club, signing individual stars to licensing deals that previously had been cut by the union. The original 11 members were all quarterbacks who received five-year, $500,000 deals to defect from the Players Association's group licensing plan.

The choice did not mean the QBs were inherently anti-union. In fact, Dan Marino had served on the union board, and Warren Moon vowed to donate some of his money to the Players Association, which was relying on licensing funds to cover litigation costs.

The relative cheapness of these deals reveals how far the NFL players have come in pay over the last two decades. A $500,000 deal wouldn't be nearly enough to bribe a single star to abandon his fellow athletes now.

The advances that the superstars have made only enhance the importance of their commitment to this fight. The union has to find a way to cut through the most exasperating cliché about sports labor struggles: They are disputes between millionaires and billionaires, and fans shouldn't bother picking sides. (In football, the fact that the owners will never die for the game would seem to be a pretty good tiebreaker.)

By default, that attitude gives owners an advantage. They're supposed to be all about the money. That's how they got into the game, with a bankroll. The athletes are supposed to care more about playing, especially if caving to the owners means nothing worse than a Pro Bowler collecting $4 million a year instead of $5 million and, even more important, rookies not collecting $30 million guaranteed before playing a down.

That's why the Players Association needs spokesmen like Brady standing up and saying: "This isn't about me. You've probably seen the pictures of my new mansion in Southern California. You know about my new contract. I'm good. This is about my colleagues who will play just four years, the league average, and leave the game in fear of what middle age will bring, whether they will be able to find another career, and how badly they might have damaged their brains."

The fans need to hear from superstars whom they respect, players they know would be in anguish over the idea of losing precious time in the game, who will not give in to the owners' demands just to avert a lockout.

Ultimately, the fans need to hear from the quarterbacks. The other stars can make a difference, but just as in the game itself, nobody can turn things around like a QB. So Brees' support has meant the world to all the less-renowned players.

When the Saints won the Super Bowl, his word gained more heft. Attitude -- whether it's fan apathy or player's fears of surrendering paychecks and playing time -- will decide this labor fight. And Brees' attitude, combined with his public persona, could be a game-changer. He has every reason to keep silent and enjoy the perks of his position. But he's willing to fight and stand with players who have less.

When the Players Association won't buckle to save the 2011 season, fans will have to ask if Brees is the kind of athlete they admire or if they prefer football players who are both submissive and self-centered.

Gwen Knapp is a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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