ATLANTA — Players and leaders of the NFL Players Association said Thursday that they have assembled a sizable “war chest” of money to help players deal with expenses if they are locked out by owners in 2021.

Eric Winston, the former offensive tackle who serves as the NFLPA’s president, said that players have put aside hundreds of millions of dollars from royalties and unused union dues in anticipation of a potential labor confrontation with owners and the league following the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement, which runs through the 2020 season.

Winston and DeMaurice Smith, the union’s executive director, said they’re hopeful of avoiding a work stoppage but must have players prepared for the possibility.

“They have to know what they’re up against,” Winston said. “They have to know what’s coming. They have to understand, just like in a game, the tactics that are going to be used against them and have to fight against it …. I will say I think every player is going to believe us when we say you’re going to get locked out.”

Players were locked out by owners before the two sides struck a 10-year labor agreement in 2011.

“Every person who’s part of a union or certainly every player who went through work stoppages knows that when a CBA comes near expiration, there is a limited number of options,” Smith said. “Everything other than renegotiating a new deal is a pretty tough option. You’re going to have some type of work stoppage. Either it’s a strike or a lockout …. It’s our job to prepare for wars that we hope we don’t have to fight.”

Winston said that the NFLPA’s operations are funded by revenue from Players Inc., the union’s merchandising and licensing arm, allowing union dues to be added to the war chest. Players said they decided to put four years’ worth of royalties from the Madden video game series into the war chest.

Some within the league are hopeful that a work stoppage can be avoided in this round of negotiations. Winston said that formal bargaining has not begun.

“I said last year we’ve talked about talking,” Winston said. “And that’s where it’s at. It’s one of these things where when people are ready, they’re going to get into a room and we’re going to try to figure this out.”

The NFLPA gave little indication, meanwhile, that there will be an agreement with the league and owners regarding a national anthem policy acceptable to both sides.

The NFL and the union announced before the season that they would attempt to negotiate such a policy after a modified anthem policy approved by the owners last May was put on hold. But when the controversy about players’ protests during the anthem subsided this season, there was little urgency for the league and the NFLPA to reach a resolution.

“I think what you saw this year were players who still had the right to protest if they chose to do so,” Smith said. “Regardless of whether it falls in or out of the public eye, that’s not something we really spend a whole lot of time thinking about. Our job was to make sure that we did everything we could to protect our players’ rights.”

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