NEW YORK — On Thursday night, 32 men will walk across the stage of Radio City Music Hall during the NFL draft’s first round. Commissioner Roger Goodell will shake each player’s hand and welcome him into the NFL. And in an instant, the two will suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of a labor battle that has no certain conclusion and has cast a cloud this week over one of the league’s preeminent events.
A record 25 draft prospects are in New York for the first round of the draft. They rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange, posed for photos atop the Radio City Music Hall marquee and participated in a community event with kids at Chelsea Piers Wednesday. But they started the day in Goodell’s office on Park Avenue, meeting with the commissioner.
“He said there’s going to be football,” said Baylor guard Danny Watkins.
Goodell wasn’t quite as pointed in his assessment later in the day with reporters. On Monday U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson lifted the six-week old lockout, and in the days since, both sides have filed a flurry of paperwork as the owners have sought a stay, which was denied by the judge Wednesday night.
“Our hope is still to get back to the negotiations table,” Goodell told reporters Wednesday. “That’s where it should be resolved. Litigation is not going to resolve this matter. The sooner we can get back to the table and start discussing the issues, we’ll get an agreement. That’s where it’s going to come from.”
Despite the uncertainty, the draft is scheduled to commence at 8 p.m. Thursday night and continue through Saturday. Many expect the Carolina Panthers to select Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick.
The prospects who will attend the draft in person say they’ve been following the labor battle closely, knowing the first chapter of their careers — and their rookie contracts — could be defined by the results. One rookie-to-be, Texas A&M’s Von Miller, was one of 10 plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against the NFL. He was in the Minneapolis courtroom earlier this month and said he had goosebumps listening to the arguments.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that Judge Nelson granted us the injunction,” he said Wednesday. “I’m sure they’re gonna appeal it. But hopefully we can keep battling this thing out and make sure that football gets played.”
Despite Nelson’s ruling, the NFL has taken the stance that normal business won’t begin until the league has some clarification. While the work stoppage continues indefinitely, this week’s draft picks are stuck in a holding pattern of sorts. They’re allowed to talk with coaches until the draft concludes Saturday afternoon, but no one knows what lies beyond the weekend. If a stay is eventually granted by an appeals court and the lockout resumes, the newest members of the NFL would be barred from having any contact with their new teams.
Players, such as Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones, could find themselves weeks — perhaps months — behind previous draft classes in terms of preparation.
“They can’t give us any playbooks or nothing,” Jones said Wednesday. “It’s going to be hard for the quarterbacks and receivers coming in to it. We have to know the offense. As far as receiver, if they want to move you around, you have to know every position out there. The quarterbacks, they got to know what everybody is doing. I think that’s one of the biggest things with the lockout.”
Because of the labor rift, much attention was focused before the draft on whether prospects would show up in New York and shake the commissioner’s hand. Players, though, said it wasn’t a difficult decision.
“You watch the draft growing up,” said Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan. “You see the guys get their name called and walk out, hold up the jersey, hold the hat — you want to be a part of that. So when I got invited, it was an easy decision for me.”
While the national headlines have been dominated this week by labor news, it hasn’t been too much of a distraction for at least 25 prospects in New York, 32 potential first-round selections and the 254 players who will hear their names called at some point in the next three days.
“Our time in New York is about the draft,” Miller said. “We’re all here to enjoy ourselves, have fun and enjoy this moment with our families.”