Players are preparing for the worst

NEW YORK -- On the surface, it's business as usual in the NFL. Rookies are being worked into their positions during offseason team activities, contracts are being negotiated and, in East Rutherford, N.J., construction crews are preparing the New Meadowlands Stadium for its first season of football.

But even now there are troubling signs of a potential lockout in 2011.

Jets tight end Dustin Keller, heading into his third season with the team, saved some of his paycheck last season, but that was just a warm-up. This year he will take a full half of his earnings and put it in reserve, just in case the Jets -- along with every other team in the NFL -- lock their doors next season.

"I have to," Keller said. "It's not hard, you just have to be disciplined. Hopefully we're not locked out but if we are I think most of us are going to be ready."

It's something the NFL Players Association is asking everyone to do, with the collective bargaining agreement between NFL teams and players set to expire next March. Right now both the players and owners are trying to digest the implications of today's Supreme Court decision in a case called American Needle v. National Football League. The NFL did not prevail after asking the court for an antitrust exemption when it comes to labor issues, delivering, in essence, a victory for the players. "We're still studying it," NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith said. "Obviously we are thrilled at the ruling."

One sports economist, the Stanford-based Roger Noll, said that if the NFL had won in court, it might have forced the players to strike first, conceivably right before the playoffs. Now that the owners have been deprived of an advantage, the players can afford to wait. "There's a ton of money on the table," Noll said. "Both sides are just raking it in. It's not in anyone's interest to kill that goose."

Keller Hopefully we're not locked out but if we are I think most of us are going to be ready.

-- Jets tight end Dustin Keller

Here is what has happened so far: This March, the NFL vacated the CBA early, which changed the way players can negotiate contracts. There is no salary cap this season, which in theory should have benefited the players. But at the same time, it has extended the period of time before players can become unrestricted free agents from four years to six.

Players drafted in 2006, such as Jets offensive lineman Nick Mangold and Giants defensive tackle Barry Cofield, are among the class that has seen its earnings stymied.

"We don't have much leverage," said Cofield, who is trying to look at it positively. "There's a lot of people that would die for a chance to make $1.7 million and that's the chance I have. All of us in this class, we've all been tendered so we're all making at least $1 million and that's not a bad amount of money to make."

Cofield was nearly sent to the Saints in the offseason, while Mangold would have been able to renegotiate his contract for several times what he is currently earning if owners hadn't opted out of the CBA. "I assume that I would have already had a contract," Mangold said, "but because of all these crazy rules and labor uncertainty things have not gone as you would assume."

Agent Harold Lewis, who represents Jets linebacker Bart Scott, among others, said that the owners are collectively saving multiple millions on the 2006 class alone. As for the sweetener for the players, that the lack of a cap would increase free-agent wages, that hasn't exactly happened. The market has been stagnant, and no team has loaded up for an expensive win-now year. Owners generally aren't outbidding one another for even the best free agents. Lewis has seen it in his negotiations, and said the teams are acting as a single corporation with a business plan in place.

"If you're the owners you say, if I sign a bunch of guys for a ton of money, I'm showing my hand and telling the union we're going to play," Lewis said. "That's what I think is going on behind the scenes. It's not what I think, I know it."

Smith said the NFLPA is watching. "We are taking a very close look at free-agent signings and the amount of money that's being spent and the amount of money that isn't being spent," he said.

Giants co-owner Steve Tisch is hopeful that the sides can resolve their issues because they are still working on a resolution, and both sides stress that they are continuing to talk.

"I wouldn't read signs," Tisch said. "We're on a business-as-usual course right now."

"It's not always taking place in a formal negotiating session," said NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello, "but there's talking."

Aiello, Tisch and Jets owner Woody Johnson declined to go into specifics about what they would gain from any work stoppage, and Aiello pointed out that there will be a full season of football before anything happens.

Many of those with knowledge of the situation don't think there will be any real progress made until after the season winds down. "You don't turn a 25-page paper in three months before it's due," said Giants union representative Shaun O'Hara. "Everybody knows the deadline is in March."

With the decision in American Needle case, the Supreme Court has kept the NFL from gaining a significant piece of legal leverage as negotiations progress. The case was brought by an apparel company which questioned the NFL's right to collectively negotiate with one hat maker. The NFL asked the court to conclude that it can do so not only with hats, but with labor, as well.

"What they've asked for is to take a baseball cap case and turn it into an antitrust exemption," said Noll, the Stanford economist who has taught classes on antitrust regulation.

Kiwanuka It's important for us to stand up and get what we feel is due.

-- Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka

Had the NFL won, Noll theorized that the NFL could have tried to break the union, and that the players could have gone on strike during the playoffs in a last-ditch attempt to retain leverage.

"There is this fundamental tension in all of professional sports between labor laws and antitrust exemptions," Noll said.

So what could be such a concern for both sides that they would risk a work stoppage that could hobble revenue for years to come? O'Hara points to extended health care given the range of physical problems that can affect players down the line. Currently, retired players get health care for five years, but often experience physical repercussions from the game well beyond that time frame.

"It's not necessarily for us, because my class, the class ahead of me and the class behind me, we're going to lose out," said Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, "but it's important for us to stand up and get what we feel is due."

Jets player representative Tony Richardson wants more transparent financial information from the league. Currently the NFL doesn't share all of its financials with the NFLPA. Bart Scott said he wants to preserve the gains that have been made by those before him, such as free agency, for the next generation of players.

"What's at stake is what we fought for," Scott said. "At the end of the day the owners supply the facilities and the money but we're the guys who push the team. And it's always going to be a difference of opinion who is more important, the people that put the money up or the people that's making the game famous and popular? Whenever you have two sides that disagree you have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario."

Generally, players and agents interviewed said they believe there will be some kind of symbolic work stoppage next March, a time when many players are off anyway. Many are hopeful that an agreement could be reached soon after, but there isn't unanimity. Smith said any lockout would cost players money and throw the draft and rookie signings into uncertainty.

"Everybody has an opinion," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "I think we'll play football, that's what I think."

While Scott said he would rather just play football, he is mindful of the players who secured a pension for him, and allowed him to negotiate a multimillion dollar deal as a free agent.

"It's just my part of history," Scott said. "Would I like a work stoppage? No, but if its the right thing to do for the betterment of the game for the players, the people who have to deal with arthritis, deal with the injuries, deal with the dementia, whatever you want to want to talk about, why not?"

Jane McManus is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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