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Owners' attempts to divide NFL players aren't working

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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The story begins with a phone call from an NFL owner to a star player. The owner wasn't calling to ask how's the family.

It didn't take long for the owner to begin criticizing NFLPA leader DeMaurice Smith. The owner began questioning Smith's strategy of litigation, saying solving the labor dispute through the courts rather than negotiating wasn't smart. The player listened and when the conversation ended he promptly informed the NFLPA.

Similar conversations, I'm told by a source with knowledge of the situation, have occurred a handful of other instances, involving several different owners contacting their star players and telling them Smith is leading them in the wrong direction. The NFL prohibits communication between players and league personnel during the lockout.

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An NFL spokesman declined to comment.

However, a league source stated the NFL is aware of communication occurring between some owners and players, but that communication was initiated by the players, not the owners, the source said.

In effect, it seems, regardless of who initiated the calls, a handful of owners previously attempted to quietly drive a divide through the NFLPA by turning star players against their own.

The calls were made to pressure the players into fracturing. To publicly chirp. To point fingers.

But a funny thing has happened on the way to dividing the players, as many among ownership and in the media expected would happen by now. It hasn't.

The owners are meeting this week to decipher what has been a disgusting labor mess. You will hear the press conference quotes and owner snippets.

Meanwhile, this is what you will hear from the players: very little. If anything at all.

Think about it. When is the last time there has been a public player outburst? A public complaint? A trashing of the NFLPA from one of its own? In recent weeks, as negotiations have sped along, the rank and file have mostly kept their mouths shut. In fact, the NFLPA in general has said little publicly.

There is a strategy here and it's simple: Get a deal done and, in the meantime, mostly shut the hell up.

The true test of player unity would of course come if the lockout went into the fall and game checks were missed but the NFL (and in some cases many members of the media) fully expected there to be far more player division than we've seen even at this point in the dispute.

That was behind the root of a story some months ago that claimed a splinter group of players had formed and wanted different representation other than the NFLPA's. No names of players were ever discovered and the story has since died.

Some of the quiet from players is a matter of luck and timing. It's summer and family vacations and beach trips have taken temporary precedence over the lockout. Also, a sense of lockout apathy has set in across the sport and players are no exception.

But most of the players' unity is a byproduct of months, if not years, of effort by the NFLPA to keep its players informed and calm. Smith has met with each of the 32 teams at least four times. This has built a sense of trust with Smith that has allowed players to phone or text Smith directly whenever serious doubt creeps in.

There are literally hundreds of texts, calls and e-mails a day between players and NFLPA leadership. If a player panics, he calls a player rep. Or sometimes Smith directly.

The question becomes: How long will the unity last?

Since negotiations between the players and owners are moving -- thus far -- at high warp speed, we might never see the players' unity tested to its capacity.

For now, there are few signs of any players cracking. Or yapping.

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