NFL players finally won one. Maybe not the deal at the table, which is widely being characterized as “fair and balanced,” a “tie” or a “draw” sealed by the poignant embrace of Robert Kraft and Jeff Saturday — a much needed feel-good moment after months of everyone feeling bad.

But the players won where it most mattered: in hanging together throughout the lockout, without a visible crack in their solidarity. The NFLPA still has to reconstitute itself in legal terms, but the players’ actions have already recreated a “union.”

Such an outcome may not seem remarkable, but for football it’s unprecedented. In 1974 and 1987, players crossed picket lines during strikes, as teammates screamed names at each other. After the strikes collapsed, fights between strikers and strike-breakers erupted on practice fields, and teams that were divided during the strike had a hard time becoming teams again. In 1982, the players were locked out and had no picket lines to cross, but several of them publicly criticized union leaders, undermining their bargaining position. In all three cases, some of the top players broke with their striking teammates. When NFL players finally gained free agency, a guaranteed share of revenues, and all the rest of their current benefits, it was through the courts, where they couldn’t lose, rather than in confrontation with the owners, where it seemed they couldn’t win.

This time, there was none of that.

Now that it’s over, the resolution seems inevitable — there was simply too much at stake to justify holding out for a few million here or there. But for a long time the owners seemed determined to act like owners again; the players had to stand strong in defending their rights as partners.

From the beginning, it was great to have the names of Brady, Brees, and Manning on the players’ lawsuit, three of the most-admired and highest-profile players taking a very public stance. Whatever was taking place behind the scenes with DeMaurice Smith and the NFLPA leadership, and among player reps with their teammates, they did everything right this time. Maybe social networking made communications easier. Maybe free agency has freed players from conceding owners’ power. I don’t know. But the players in the most team-oriented sport for the first time actually hung together as a team.

Details of the agreement matter, of course. The requirement that every team spend at least 90 percent of the salary cap on players seems likely offset the players’ smaller percentage of total revenue, but the financial details, as always, are too convoluted to readily grasp. From what’s been reported so far, I like shifting dollars from rookies to veterans; I particularly like the players’ life-long access to medical insurance; I’m hopeful that provisions for dealing with head trauma and its long-term effects will be adequate, and that the agreement will help heal the NFLPA’s rift with retired players. Overall, I like the current players’ setting a priority on their health and safety, not on the dollars in their pockets. (And I’m very curious to learn the details of the supplemental revenue-sharing agreement that the owners worked out for themselves--barely mentioned in reports on the settlement but crucial to maintaining the NFL’s dominance among American sports organizations.)

But whatever the details of various issues and however the $9 billion got divided in the final agreement, the players’ unity in itself was a great victory, for now and into the future.

Michael Oriard is an English professor at Oregon State University and the author of several books on football, including Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport and The End of Autumn: Reflections on My Life in Football.