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Player court 'victory' could wind up being anything but

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Let's say you believe that a federal court next month overturns the current NFL lockout and rules in favor of players seeking to end it. Then what? Well, then everyone can return to work, free agency resumes and players declare victory -- one they no doubt believe they can turn into an advantage if and when they return to the negotiating table.

But be careful what you wish for, guys. I'd argue that even if the NFL loses in court, it may still earn a significant victory, and here's why: If a lockout is struck down, the league almost certainly returns to rules governing the 2010 season -- and tell me how popular that was with its constituents.

A victory in court might not give Vincent Jackson the free-market relief he sought. (US Presswire)  
A victory in court might not give Vincent Jackson the free-market relief he sought. (US Presswire)  
It wasn't. Players didn't like the system then, and I can't imagine they'll like it again. One reason: A lot of guys who could become unrestricted free agents and score huge paydays would again have to wait six years instead of the usual four for that opportunity, and they can complain all they want. It won't matter because they'll have no choice, and, trust me, that won't go over easily.

So some players will be furious with what they consider a Pyrrhic victory, and you tell me who gains leverage then.

Essentially, this could be one of those scenarios where players win the war and lose the peace because even though there will be antitrust exposure and players will appeal the league's action -- whatever it might be -- it could take eons to resolve through the legal system, and I know who’s willing and more prepared to wait longer ... and it's not the players.

By reinstating 2010 rules, owners would operate without a cap ceiling, without a cap floor, without some player benefits and with six years -- not four -- of free agency. Now, let me get this straight: That's a victory for players? I don't think so.

Players would be paid, and eventually, a new collective bargaining agreement would be reached, but the pressure won't be on owners to cut a new deal; it will be on the players. They will want anything that frees them from last season's guidelines.

If you don't believe it, consider the cases of Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill in San Diego: They were so teed off last season when they went from unrestricted to restricted free agents, they stayed at home and refused to show up for work. McNeill sat out until mid-October. Jackson didn't return to the field until late November. Both wanted long-term contracts, but only one got it.

That would be McNeill, who signed a five-year, $48 million deal after returning to the team. And Jackson? He didn't do so well. He lost a lot of money, was tagged as the team's franchise player last month and now is one of 10 players filing an antitrust lawsuit against the league.

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Jackson was supposed to cash in big after breakouts years in 2008 and 2009, but the payday never arrived. Instead of gaining a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract, he reluctantly returned to sign a one-year tender -- which is not the picture of a happy camper.

Now, multiply Vincent Jackson by 151 (the number of fourth- and fifth-year restricted free agents with tenders), and you're looking at the next class of unhappy free agents waiting to be disappointed if 2010 happens all over again. Among them: WR Santonio Holmes, CB Antonio Cromartie, RB Ahmad Bradshaw, RB Joseph Addai, S Eric Weddle, OT Willie Colon and LB Stewart Bradley.

They should be frustrated. They should be angry. And they should ask why they're in this position. In short, they should ask why NFLPA negotiators didn't hang around last Friday when the league made a substantial last-minute move that deserved discussion.

Afterward, players explained that they were tired of waiting for management to move on something that could have been proposed a week, three weeks or months earlier, and I understand. But I also understand that's how negotiations work. Often, it's not until the last minute that one side blinks, and in this case that side was the owners.

The NFLPA had a perfect window of opportunity to declare a victory ... extend talks ... exert leverage ... something, anything ... but instead walked out of the meeting and moved to decertify, an act that provoked owners to declare a lockout.

Exasperated players claim that's what owners wanted all along, and that's a topic for debate. But it's also business, folks, and it's not for the weak. NFL owners resorted to muscle, and I suggest they did it knowing they could lose next month when a U.S. federal court in Minnesota hears its case.

Of course, they'll never say that, nor should they. They could always win the decision, too, but when it comes to the courtroom the players are the home team that gets the calls.

But so what? Even if the players win a court decision, the most difficult battle remains. And it's one they could just as easily lose ... and lose big. And don't tell me owners don't know it.

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