For new deal, 'disrespect' must dissolve

NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith represents a group that spends a lot of time focusing on "respect"... or lack thereof. AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Take a close peek at virtually any NFL player and it’ll show: an antennae that perks up at any sign of disrespect -- real or perceived.

These guys are world-class athletes who work under tremendous pressure beneath giant magnifying glasses while putting their bodies at giant risk.

A great share of them look beyond a large paycheck and the faith of a coaching staff to latch onto any sort of motivation they can find. Often it arrives in the form of that disrespect.

Sometimes, perhaps they are disrespected -- by an owner, by a coach, by an opponent, by an analyst, by fans.

But often these player slights are just that.

Watch how they dissect a comment from a competitor. Say a quarterback, looking for examples of high-quality cornerbacks in the course of an interview, names four. Another six who might have a legitimate case for inclusion, and at least 54 who don’t, all believe too easily the comment was planned and plotted strictly to dig at them. Their position coaches will be sure they know of it and will do nothing to tamp it down, preferring a stoked fire to an idle one.

Watch how often guys preface statements with the crutch/disclaimer they hope preserves them from such things: “No disrespect intended, but…”

Watch how they react to their team declining to renegotiate a contract that has multiple years remaining. Or how they are driven crazy by restricted free-agent tenders or franchise tags that keep them from free agency, where they are certain they’ll hit the jackpot. Some may sensibly say they understand the business aspect of the game. But others can’t help but take it personally.

Watch a beat writer hit the locker room after a surprise win, and odds are at least one player will bristle at him, noting how said reporter picked against said result. Guys who regularly claim not to read papers and websites have a great propensity for knowing who picked what as soon as it amounts to “disrespect.”

Watch a guy who’s under-drafted talk for the duration of his career of the teams that passed him by and his desire to make them regret it.

The disrespect card gets played in NFL locker rooms more often than Bourré, and that card game is immensely popular in some quarters.

And so my ears perked up when -- after CBA talks broke down, the union decertified and the owners locked players out -- the players let it be known so widely they felt owners were not being respectful of them.

Among the complaints: Not enough owners were at the forefront of the negotiations. Dallas’ Jerry Jones reportedly spoke threateningly and condescendingly to them as the clock ticked toward the final hours. Afterward, the management side wasn’t honest as it spelled out the final offer that the players passed on.

We’ve heard all that and more in the last few weeks.

I’m not on one side or the other, but I do have a strong feeling as it pertains to this disrespect issue: The owners have to suck it up and smooth it over.

Maybe management does not believe the players are their intellectual equals, that they are true partners in the league, that they deserve the same share of the pie as they’ve been getting, that they fully understand the financial implications of the NFL’s operations in the current economy.

Owners should be familiar, however, with the importance of disrespect as fuel for their employees. Rather than appearing out of touch or unconcerned, they should be more sensitive to it now.

"I think this game is inherently about earning someone else's respect," said Houston right tackle Eric Winston, who was an alternate team union rep. "If you're out there against a guy, the best thing you can get after a game is a compliment from him, that he respects how you played, that he respects you as a player.

"I think that's kind of the ultimate, when you can get your opponent to respect you and to really feel like, 'Hey, that guy is a pretty good player.' That's really what this game is all about, gaining the respect of your teammates and that guy across from you by the way that you play.

"And I think when you don't feel like that, when you don't feel respected, it goes back to those core roots. There is a chip on your shoulder at that point: 'One way or another, through willpower or whatever, we're going to make this guy respect us.' It's not something that should be overlooked."

It's the owners, not other players, who are across from the players now.

Like a spouse working to do the right thing to facilitate a repaired relationship, owners have to bring themselves to understand just how they are making the players feel and work to make them feel differently.

We’ve heard over and over how the predominant issue in all this from both sides is a lack of trust.

The first thing that needs to happen to pave a path that fixes that is for owners to find a way to reach out to players to convince them there is respect flowing in their direction. Whether it’s true or not, that may entail admitting there has not been sufficient value placed on them in this process and -- gasp! -- apologizing for it to help change their perceptions.

So get owners from the league’s most player-friendly organizations -- let’s say a six pack of New England’s Robert Kraft, Giants (co-owner) John Mara, Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney, Atlanta’s Arthur Blank, Philadelphia Jeffrey Lurie and Houston’s Bob McNair -- to start with olive branches at lunch meetings.

They will have to work hard to be conciliatory. Players are an emotional collective, and when they get fired up it takes a lot to walk them back. And they don’t want to feel walked back.

As a reporter and blogger, I’ve had experience with that on a small level.

Write something that upsets players and some brush it off relatively easily, but most don’t see the reason in what you wrote even after a discussion. They still see the disrespect.

The conversations that I’ve been part of to try to patch up those dented relationships have been complicated, lengthy, even exhausting. I’m not insisting I was necessarily in the right. But I followed a reporter tenet, showing up to assure a guy who was disturbed got to talk directly to the irritant.

Sometimes he understood. Sometimes we agreed to disagree. Sometimes he stayed mad. Sometimes that anger faded. Some are angry still.

I’ve encountered enough of it to conclude at least part of it is part of that pro football player’s wiring, that fine-tuned antenna. And if I had to come to terms on a giant business deal with a guy wired like that who felt I crossed him, it would be exceedingly difficult.

Respect is not getting talked about much as a big part of the squabbling and negotiating that stands between the two sides and a new CBA.

But it’s a vital part of the landscape right now even as we wait on a judge.

Owners need to swallow hard and make the players feel loved, appreciated, needed. Create an environment where your biggest decision-makers make their counterparts among the players feel valued, heard, seen.

I’m not naïve enough to think that’s going to fix things.

But hugging it out is a good place for the owners to start.