MARCO ISLAND, Fla.— Some 100 National Football League players girded for the possibility of a long work stoppage Thursday morning during meetings at a swank beachfront hotel here, trying to build a spirit of unity and carving out a tactical approach for the coming months.
Less than a week after the players filed an anti-trust lawsuit against NFL owners in federal court and owners locked them out of team facilities, players closely examined the last proposal they received from owners during contract talks to ensure that everyone in Thursday’s closed-door session understood why it was turned down.
Then they turned their attention to the importance of communication and continued training. They urged the league’s players to stay informed, unified and physically fit as the dispute moves from the negotiating table to a federal courtroom.
“I know for a fact some guys get isolated. They get buried in that deep corner,” said Tony Richardson, a running back for the New York Jets. “You’ve got to keep reaching out to them . . . this could go a long time.”
When players emerged during a break in the National Football League Players Association’s annual meeting Thursday, many steered clear of heavy criticism or personal attacks on the league’s ownership. They said they hoped for vindication April 6 when Susan Richard Nelson, a U.S. district court judge in Minnesota, considers whether to grant the players’ request for an injunction to lift the lockout.
The NFL has filed a complaint against the players with the National Labor Relations Board, charging sham negotiating tactics. That claim remains under investigation.
Several players said their primary goals in coming weeks include resisting being drawn into a war of words, which they figured would be unappealing and unbecoming from a public relations standpoint, as well as destructive to future bargaining.
“When you’re getting into a media battle with the opposing side, the biggest thing is, the truth prevails,” said Max Starks of the Pittsburgh Steelers. “We’d rather be calculated and put the facts out. . . . We’re not going to go beyond that.”
The NFLPA — now considered a trade association, not a union, because the players dissolved it in order to file their lawsuit — invited players to use the training and physical therapy facilities at various Athletes’ Performance sites throughout the nation while they are locked out of team training complexes.
The owner of Athletes’ Performance, Mark Verstegen, is also the NFL Players Association’s director of performance. He advises players on nutrition, training and physical therapy.
“My main thing I tell all the guys is . . . it’s important you do something every day,” said Takeo Spikes, a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers.
The players took pains to present themselves as informed and unified, seekers of the high road who are facing unreasonable demands and attacks from the other side. Several nationwide polls released before talks collapsed last Friday showed players with a significant advantage in public support. A Bloomberg National Poll conducted March 4-7 showed that 43 percent of those surveyed sided with the players and 20 percent with the owners.
But they have had to maneuver around a few public relations obstacles since talks broke down. Since last week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and some owners have characterized the abandonment of talks as the players’ fault, saying they walked away from negotiations without offering even a final counter-proposal.
Players also struggled this week to clarify their posture on the April NFL draft. They said they weren’t urging collegians to “boycott” the draft, but rather giving them the option of enjoying the draft with fellow players rather than league owners if they wished. They also downplayed their appearance at this luxury resort, noting that NFLPA meetings in the past have taken place in Hawaii. They said this venue seemed more fiscally responsible and appropriate.
“We’re not trying to villainize the owners,” said Sean Morey, a former NFL wide receiver who has been involved in the talks. “We understand they have a fiduciary responsibility to make revenue for the game. We share in that . . . [But] their entire argument is flawed and unsupported and unpersuasive.”
Players vowed to spread that message through daily e-mails, phone calls and mass messages.
“The most important thing, at the end of the day, is our staying as one,” Spikes said. “That’s the most important thing.”