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Players standing strong -- and better stay that way

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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MARCO ISLAND, Fla. -- For those who think the NFL and its players will settle their differences soon -- or soon enough so that mini-camps, offseason workouts or training camps won't be affected -- there was a sobering message Thursday from San Francisco player representative Takeo Spikes.

"The mindset," he said, "is not to show up until August. That's the mindset we have to take for now. As players, we want to play. We didn't lock ourselves out."

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Spikes is right on two counts. They did not lock themselves out, and, yes, they should prepare for the worst -- even though a court decision in early April could bring relief. Ten players signed on as plaintiffs in an antitrust lawsuit scheduled to be heard in a federal court April 6.

If the players win, the lockout is broken and players can return -- though it would be under rules imposed by the league and almost surely rules for the 2010 season.

But if they lose? Well, that's why Spikes and others are here. Their message to players is to stay united, stay strong and stay together -- and for now they are. But it's March, and no game checks have been missed, and bills aren't accumulating. But if it's August, and there's still no football ... well, then we have a potential problem.

Correction: The players have a potential problem.

Because the last time there was a work stoppage in the NFL striking players couldn't wait to jump the picket line. Granted, the scenario was different. It was a strike, not a lockout, so players can't cross a picket line that doesn't exist.

But they can cross their leadership. The unity on display at this weekend's meetings will be tested if nothing is resolved in the coming months, which is why player representatives are here. Like Spikes, they're preparing themselves -- and teammates -- for worst-case scenarios, hoping they don't happen but prepared if they do.

”You have to continue to feed guys information," said the Jets' Tony Richardson. "I know some guys can get isolated and bury themselves in that deep corner, but those are the guys I have to keep reaching out to. A lot of our young players ... I have to keep them engaged because this thing could go for a long time."

As I said, the courts will have something to say about that, but, in the end, so will NFL owners. The last time we saw them they were preaching negotiation, not litigation, so you have to believe they'll return to the bargaining table. The question, of course, is: When?

For the moment, players don't seem concerned, content to let the federal courts weigh in first. Eventually, however, they'll have to deal with owners again, and they made it clear again Thursday that they cannot and will not strike a deal without gaining detailed financial statements.

That's not exactly a revelation. But this is: Players acknowledged that they don't need 10 years of audited statements, as they demanded, or even five, as owners proposed. What they do want are detailed audits, and they said they would be willing to have them submitted to a neutral party agreeable to both sides.

Thus far, they said they've seen nothing of the sort -- getting "snapshots, an aggregate of a few teams," as Richardson put it -- and that won't cut it.

"How far apart are you?" Sean Morey, a former player and member of the players' executive committee, was asked.

He shrugged.

"How do we know?" he said. "If the owners are incapable of providing audited financial statements. We can't sit back and just trust them at their word."

That's understandable, particularly in light of this month's court decision that ruled the NFL acted against the players' interests when it negotiated its last TV contracts. But the more players press, the more, they say, management resists.

Once upon a time, I thought the problem was the disclosure process itself -- basically, that players wanted financial statements that owners were unwilling to provide. But then owners offered five years of team-by-team statements to be reviewed by a neutral party, and when that didn't fly I thought the neutral party was the problem.

Wrong again. It turns out the players want line-by-line itemizing, and they don't care who sees it -- just so long as they're viewed. Good luck. I don't see that happening soon, another reason Spikes and his colleagues better stay strong.

"The numbers they're willing to provide," said Morey, "don't give us any sort of definitive ability to analyze data and reach a conclusion as to what we can negotiate and what's a fair deal.

"I mean, they say they have decreasing profitability. But if you think of the significance of profitability -- with all the other line items unavailable -- how do we get a real clear picture of what their potential costs are, what their revenue is and what their decreasing profitability is?"

"But when you ask for those statements," he was asked, "what is their response?"

"We wouldn't be able to understand it" Morey said, quoting a management source. "They said, 'We provided that information, and you wouldn’t be able to understand. (We said) 'You know what? We're players, and we're coachable."

Morey went to Brown University, so he knows he would be able to understand. So would Richardson, who has an MBA. So there must be another reason, and Morey thinks there is.

"(So we don't) see how much money they're going to make down the road," he said. "They understand. They totally comprehend it. (Dallas owner) Jerry Jones sat across from us and said he's a professional optimist. Damn right he is. He understands the league now is more profitable than ever and the amount of money they're able to make down the road is something I personally believe they don't want to share."

Maybe. All I know is that talk is cheap, and this lockout is not. And it could be months before it's resolved. Players keep telling us they stand for what's right and what's fair, and maybe they do. But they also tell us this is a business negotiation, and what's right and what's fair don't always win.

"I think we're stronger than ever," said Richardson.

They may have to be.

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