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Time for NFL players to adopt new labor game plan

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The NFL Players Association loves to remind us all that they didn't start this ever-annoying mess that's put the 2011 season in an uncomfortable limbo. What the technically-disbanded union won't tell you, however, is it holds the power to ultimately fix it.

The players sustained their first major loss in the ongoing labor war with last week's decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to grant a permanent stay of the lockout up until the panel gives its ruling on whether or not to uphold District Judge Susan Nelson's April 25 edict that temporarily lifted the work stoppage. With that same trio of magistrates also assigned to the bench when the two sides present their arguments next month, it's hard to fathom the court undergoing a sudden about-face on the subject in the coming weeks.

Though some fans may bemoan a missed opportunity to get the league up and running again, that expected verdict could in fact provide a much-needed jump start to an impasse that has been frustratingly stuck in neutral since the NFLPA opted to decertify over two months ago. With its goal of obtaining a favorable resolution through the courts now a less likely occurrence, the union will have to reexamine its preferred strategy of using litigation over negotiation, making a reluctant return to the bargaining table more of a possibility than prior to last week's outcome.

Such a move would be welcomed by the league, which has been adamant about attempting to reach a workable accord through mediation, mostly because of its overall poor track record of success in the courtroom. And although it's well within bounds to take the NFL, which hadn't been particularly forthcoming about its finances in the talks that preceded the lockout, to task for its role in the current stalemate, it should receive some credit for realizing the best possible scenario involves finding an agreement that satisfies both parties from a monetary standpoint in addition to further expanding the game's revenue stream.

It's unclear whether the union concurs, however. As the owners continue to publicly call for a return to the collective bargaining process, NFLPA boss DeMaurice Smith has used his face time predominantly to defiantly chastise the league at every turn, while repeatedly portraying the players he represents solely as unwilling victims of an unfortunate situation he and his fellow lawyers have helped create.

Perhaps last week's ruling will implore Smith and his colleagues to reverse course and take a less combative stance, as some form of concessions will eventually need to be made if the owners are indeed able to maintain their newfound upper hand. Unfortunately, that may not happen any time soon, especially since the union still has a few bullets left in its arsenal.

Remember that the players still have a pending antitrust suit against the NFL, a case that will be heard by Nelson in the NFLPA's "home court" of Minnesota, and union-friendly Judge David Doty is due to reward the players compensation in the near future for finding the NFL guilty of breaching the previous CBA in the notorious "lockout insurance" case. A substantial award may provide the union with its own "war chest" it could use to help withstand potential lost wages the players would incur in the event of missed game checks.

In other words, the union may have both the motive and resources to keep standing its ground in spite of the perceived recent leverage shift, a daunting proposition for those who remain optimistic that the lockout is nearing its end.

However, there's still another variable strong enough to have a profound effect on how Smith and the NFLPA counsel play their cards from here on out.

The biggest threat may in fact come from the union's own ranks. Sure, the players thus far have presented a mostly unified front and are by no means distraught over the absence of tedious minicamps and offseason training activities that normally take place around this time. But like the fans, they want more than anything to be playing football in September, and the likelihood of a player revolt that would endanger any advantages Smith and his cronies have gained up to this point becomes greater with each day the NFLPA slow-plays the issue.

A public that had generally been in the players' corner at the outset already appears to have grown tired of Smith's unconventional tactics. In a recent poll taken by the popular website Pro Football Talk, more than 45 percent of fans favored the owners' side in the labor dispute, compared to only 23.4 percent for the players (over 31 percent of voters didn't have a preference).

To put it in football terms, the players will soon be entering the fourth quarter of a game with a deficit that even Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees would have a tough time overcoming, and at some point the union's going to have to face the cold reality that the playing field probably isn't going to stay the same as it was prior to the expiration of the last CBA. While Smith's persistence and unwavering attitude has been somewhat commendable, he still runs the dangerous risk of inciting two very angry mobs -- that of fans and his own constituents -- and faces the unwelcome prospect of a credibility level synonymous with Harold Camping (you know, the rapture guy) the longer the lockout lingers.

Even a false prophet can see that coming.


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