When Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita(notes) learned that U.S. District Court Judge Susan R. Nelson had lifted the lockout Monday afternoon, his first reaction was to call for an all-out blitz.
"I think every player who's under contract and is in the Cleveland area should show up at the facility tomorrow morning and get back to work," Fujita told me by phone from his home in central California shortly after Nelson's decision granting an injunction was announced. "That'd be awesome. And if the team refuses to let them enter, they'd be held in contempt of court."
Fujita, a member of the decertified NFL Players Association's executive committee, sent an email to Browns players informing them that they had every right to show up for work Tuesday morning. Some of them will almost certainly do, as will other players at team facilities across the country.
In at least tacitly encouraging this behavior – as did numerous agents to whom I spoke on Monday – Fujita wasn't simply celebrating the immediate ramifications of a potentially significant legal victory for the players in their ongoing labor war with the league's owners. Rather, he was smartly enunciating what should be an obvious strategy for the formerly locked out (and perhaps soon-to-be-locked-out-again) employees: Seize this moment, however fleeting it may be.
Even if Nelson or the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis grants the NFL a stay of the injunction as early as Tuesday, and the players are once again locked out pending the outcome of the league's appeal, there is much that the 1,800-plus members of the "trade association," which the NFLPA has become, can accomplish in the interim.
First and foremost, the players can strike a much-needed blow in the public-relations battle for the hearts and minds of frustrated football fans everywhere. Against all logic, much of the public has assigned equal blame to players and owners for this work stoppage, and a recent profootballtalk.com poll indicated more fans blame the lockout on the locked-out employees than on the bosses who've locked the doors.
Rather than devote any additional energy toward explaining why that makes absolutely no sense, let me try to dumb it down for even the most disinterested of rightfully peeved fans. Picture this visual: Peyton Manning(notes), Ray Lewis(notes), Troy Polamalu(notes) and your other favorite NFL players are shown entering their respective team facilities by television news crews. Later, after a stay is granted, team employees escort said players from the building and (metaphorically) lock the doors behind them. Players, loudly into the camera, protest, "Why are you sending us away? We just want to go to work!"
Even the knee-jerk pro-management crowd would have a hard time spinning that scenario against the players.
As Fujita said Monday, "We always knew the law and the facts were on our side, and we were hoping the owners would come to us with a reasonable offer and that we'd reach a deal. Now, we're excited to get back to work. [The owners' expected] reaction to this ruling demonstrates that they're going to take every necessary step to keep these doors bolted shut."
There are also some practical reasons for players to embrace this potentially short window to walk through those previously locked doors. Players whose contracts call for workout bonuses would theoretically receive credit for any days they report to the facility, even if teams go through with an NFL Management Council-suggested plan (reported Monday night by ESPN's Adam Schefter) to keep their weight rooms closed on Tuesday. In theory, preventing players from working out on team property would be additional fodder for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady(notes) and his co-plaintiffs in their antitrust suit against the league.
Finally, merely by their presence, the players will be applying pressure to a group of owners who have to be feeling at least a bit jumpy about the hard-line approach to negotiations, a strategy they commenced more than two years ago. As I wrote last month in urging players to disrupt the upcoming NFL draft, labor disputes are messy and a primary goal of striking or locked-out workers is to create an uncomfortable situation that puts pressure on management to settle.
Suffice it to say that things will get very, very uncomfortable at team facilities on Tuesday.
For one thing, coaches and other team employees will suddenly be exposed to players after having been told to avoid contact with them at all costs during the lockout – or potentially be subject to termination with cause. Most coaches and even team executives bear the players no ill will and are probably eager to begin working with them as quickly as possible, yet they probably don't want to act too excited for fear of it getting back to the big boss.
The sudden and continued presence of players at team facilities will also be a constant reminder that chaos looms. And if locked doors are the owners' ultimate leverage, chaos is the players' best friend.
Right now, absent a very quick granting of a stay (followed by a victory in the appellate court), the owners must decide when to begin the "league year" – and, by definition, commence free agency and trigger the roster bonuses and other contractual devices tied to the official start of the 2011 season. The longer they wait, the more vulnerable they are to being held in contempt of court and/or bolstering the players' antitrust case.
However, the start of the league year would severely test the owners' much-trumpeted solidarity, as soon-to-be unrestricted free agents like Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha(notes) would hit the market. If no one makes the perennial All-Pro an offer, for example, the owners could be staring at another legal nightmare, the dreaded C-word (collusion). Yet if teams come at Asomugha with enormous offers – likely in an environment devoid of salary-cap protections – there may be dissension within the owners' ranks.
Even now, some of the owners have to be questioning the hawkish strategy spearheaded by outside attorney Bob Batterman and wondering whether a more moderate approach could have led to a new collective-bargaining agreement that accomplished some of the owners' goals without subjecting them to the current risk level. Granted, this could all swing back their way with a stay and a successful appeal, and the owners do have one of the most persuasive litigators in America, David Boies, leading their legal team.
That said, appeals of strongly worded decisions like Nelson's are far from a sure bet, and an element of doubt has to be creeping into some owners' minds. It's also significant that Monday's resounding legal victory for the players came not from the hand of David Doty, whom the owners are convinced is biased against them, but from Nelson, a 58-year-old recent appointee to the federal bench whose grasp of the NFL labor landscape appears strikingly thorough and impressive.
According to si.com's Peter King, a legal expert predicted Monday that a ruling on a stay from the Eighth Circuit would take between two and seven days. That's plenty of time for the players to capitalize on their newfound momentum.
It's especially fortuitous, for them, that the draft will be held from Thursday through Saturday. The uncertainty caused by Nelson's ruling is an unwelcome distraction for coaches and front-office executives, and one that could blow up a lot of draft boards. For example, if trades are suddenly allowed, teams seeking a quarterback are free to ignore the Ryan Mallets and Christian Ponders of the world and instead go after Kevin Kolb(notes), Vince Young(notes), Carson Palmer(notes) and other veterans.
Fujita, for one, would like to see the Browns, who reacted to a second consecutive 5-11 season by firing coach Eric Mangini and replacing him with Pat Shurmur, take advantage of this window by behaving in an aggressive and selfish manner.
"I would like to think some businesses would have the [guts] to engage in transactions as soon as possible," Fujita said. "We're a team that's in transition, a team that's trying to start winning some games. I would hope we'd make a splash immediately."
At the very least, Nelson's decision will be a boon to the rookies who go undrafted. Before Nelson's ruling, teams were prohibited from signing any rookies, period; now, they'll likely be able to offer contracts to those players who don't get picked immediately upon the completion of Saturday's seventh round.
Psychologically, any resumption of offseason business is a good thing for the players. If fans see that the business of pro football as they know it is at least somewhat restored, they'll start getting excited about the 2011 season. Should an appellate court take away that excitement by reinstating the lockout, it's kind of obvious to whom the bulk of the fans' ire will be directed.
I'm guessing it won't be the muscular guys in team-issued gear getting ushered out of facilities while saying, "We just want to play football" – and making sure that the cameras are rolling.