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Pleasantries over, NFL and players to get down and dirty

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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The phone rang and on the other end was a longtime league executive returning a call. He didn't say hello. The normal pleasantries were dispensed with. There was a quick, honest and simple exclamation.

"We're f----- this up," he said, "badly."

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And by "we" he meant both sides. The players and owners. There was no parsing of blame, no rhetoric meant to influence the masses. Just a simple declarative statement that perfectly embodies the current situation.

The union has dissolved, a lockout will likely ensue at some point, and now football moves from the field to the courts. Football, unfortunately, is all but dead for the immediate future.

The language of the sport officially shifts from touchdowns and first downs to plaintiffs and defendants as the NFL juggles Pandora's box and gambles with the loyalty of its fans.

The last day of mediated talks was an intense and hurried one, according to a multitude of sources. The main discussion was over the additional $1 billion the owners were originally asking the players to give back. The owners significantly reduced that amount in their latest proposal, a source said. The source would not say how much.

The players stuck to their demands about wanting to see the owners' books and the owners continued to refuse, a source said.

The union then went to its membership and, after what was called a spirited discussion with other union members via telephone, union head DeMaurice Smith said the plan was for the union to end negotiations and go to court.

Smith announced at a press conference that huge differences remained. He said the union asked for 10 years' worth of financials from NFL teams. That request was about as likely to be granted as Jim Tressel being elected chief compliance officer at Ohio State.

So here we are. Back and forth we've gone for months. Optimism and pessimism; silence and quiet; threats and non-threats; deadlines and headlines; back-slapping and back-stabbing; mediation and annihilation. To where we are now: Off the cliff and into the great unknown.

With some fans showing their sentiments behind him, Jeff Pash of the NFL meet the media after the union breaks off talks. (AP)  
With some fans showing their sentiments behind him, Jeff Pash of the NFL meet the media after the union breaks off talks. (AP)  
Actually, there is one known. Fans are the ones left splattered like a bug on the windshield in this high stakes game. The incredible momentum professional football has built in the past decade with the most loyal and zealous group of fans in American sports will be tested as this case winds through the court labyrinth and legal hellfire.

Football is now in the hands of the lawyers, and you know what Shakespeare said about lawyers.

The abyss we hoped would never be crossed has not only been crossed, but the NFL has set the bridge behind on fire.

This is the most important fact you need to know about this fight: the hatred between the two sides is as intense as ever.

Perhaps the only time players and management despised each other more was the replacement player years. That strike from decades ago left scars that remain. This current situation, in the opinion of a variety of league personnel, is only second to that. Both sides have true contempt for one another on a scale rarely seen in organized sports.

What that means is neither side will give relief or turf. There's no closeness to build upon or common ground to find. The hatred is so intense that true bargaining and negotiation evaporate under the stress.

It's a true fight now. It's a lowdown, brutal, dirty battle that will last months.

Several players have told CBSSports.com that some players in the past few weeks have basically stopped spending as preparation for the legal fight. Some are selling off cars or cutting expense elsewhere, just in case there's no paycheck many months from now (seems a little extreme, eh?). Wives and girlfriends are being informed that vacations and lavish spending are going to cease. (The only thing missing are survival seeds.) Players, in other words, are preparing as if a long battle is coming, and it is.

This is likely how things will go from here:

Owners lock the players out.

The union's antitrust lawsuit against the league (which includes big-name plaintiffs like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning) goes before Judge David Doty to prevent a lockout. In the end, Doty rules for the players.

Eventually, most likely, the football offseason and free agency are played under 2010 rules while court cases and talks continue for months. Football arrives in the fall after a series of bloody fights and shaken faith among many in the fan base.

Football probably returns in September.

Probably.

The unpredictability of the courts and player finances are the two wild cards in this process. If the fight goes longer than expected, the power switches from the players (where they have the advantage now), to the owners. Doty gives players the short-term muscle.

Yet we all know the truth. The unfortunate, ugly truth.

In this, everyone loses.

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