The message repeated by players on the former union's executive committee over the past 48 hours was a simple one. Don't cave. Stay strong until the end. Don't let the owners steamroll us. Don't let them divide us.
It became a pervasive theme among the upper echelons of the trade association. The owners and media, players were saying, were putting pressure on the players to agree with the owners on a new collective bargaining agreement. That pressure only intensified after the owners basically ratified an agreement with themselves.
"The owners are trying to paint us as the bad guys," one player told me. "We're not."
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As the day went on Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith spoke by phone attempting to settle their remaining differences. Yet it became clear that while Goodell was prepared to move forward with an agreement, Smith was more cautious.
The end result was a circus press conference -- a dirty trick, really -- by the owners as they prematurely declared labor peace as of generating public pressure on the players to capitulate. Some players watching Goodell during his press conference were incredulous.
"It was arrogant," one player texted.
"It was serious gamesmanship," said another player, "designed to make us look bad."
The overwhelming feeling among players was that the owners tried to slip language and details into the agreement that fundamentally changed what they had previously negotiated. Tweeted player Heath Evans: "Here is what the "Real" fans need 2 know: The owners tried 2 slip many things n2 the CBA "they" voted on that were NEVER agreed 2! #PRPlay"
"It's funny how they are playing this media game tryna make us seem like the 'bad guy' to the fans," tweeted New Orleans corner Tracy Porter.
True to their word the players -- they are highly competitive human beings after all -- failed to be intimidated. Unlike the owners, there was no player vote, only a conference call involving the 32 player representatives that lasted over two hours.
And, so, the lockout continues. It goes on and on and on ...
The disaster Thursday again showed the central problem that has existed for 132 days -- a severe lack of trust between the players and owners.
What Goodell and the owners did was place a bull's eye square on the chest of the players. The owners basically said this to fans: We tried to get a deal done and the players didn't. Blame the greedy players.
It is true the players allowed the owners to take the initiative, and in doing so the owners put themselves in position to take the PR lead. It's brilliant, in some ways. Perfect example: The owners are planning to open team facilities later this week. The owners hope to get players working out at the various complexes, get them excited about returning to football, and thus weaken union leadership.
(Imagine television cameras catching players entering team facilities thus getting fans excited and in turn, again, putting pressure on the union.)
What the owners did, quite bluntly, was pull a manipulative power play. The players have every right to seek the best, most comprehensive deal for them. Not for the owners. Not for the fans. For them.
Think about this. The owners ratified an agreement the players hadn't seen in its entirety.
But the pressure the players are going to feel will be incredible. It will be a heavy weight on their chest -- Ndamukong Suh heavy. That's what the NFL's owners wanted.
The deal will get done. It's only a matter of time but, Thursday was one of the strangest days of this strange and frustrating lockout.
There are still outstanding issues remaining to be solved. Some of those include supplemental revenue sharing, workman's comp issues, and the television lockout fund case that still sits before Judge David Doty.
The two big ones include how the trade association will reconstitute itself as a union and how the plaintiffs in the antitrust case will settle their suit.
Now the challenge for Smith is to make sure his players don't become so angry that a deal is truly endangered. It may be Smith's toughest task in a lockout full of them.