Saints quarterback Drew Brees, leaving NFL labor talks last week in Washington,… (Alex Brandon / Associated…)
NFL owners have locked out the players, but both sides in pro football's labor fight are locked and loaded, firing salvos about who's to blame for the breakdown of talks.
The sniping continued Monday — after a weekend of statements from team owners blaming the players for pushing away from the negotiating table — when the just-decertified NFL Players Assn. conducted a media conference call to tell its side of the story, and to reemphasize it saw a lockout coming all along.
"We're not going to allow the league to let 36 hours of a media PR blitz erase what has been planned and prepared for almost three years now," said George Atallah, spokesman for the NFLPA, which dissolved as a union Friday and is now a trade association.
The NFL, in turn, argues the union has intended for two years to decertify (barring an unlikely agreement in the interim) and always intended to drag this fight into the federal courts. A union is not allowed to decertify simply to gain leverage in bargaining.
Meanwhile, there were developments Monday on several fronts:
The NFLPA is attempting to discourage top prospects from attending next month's draft, according to an ESPN report citing "multiple league sources." That would alter the time-honored tradition of the early picks walking onstage, shaking the hand of Commissioner Roger Goodell, and sporting the hat and jersey of the player's new team. Even though a lockout is in effect, there still will be a 2011 draft.
The NFLPA declined to comment on the report, whereas NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said, "We plan to invite the 15 to 20 top prospects and their families to New York as we normally do for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. And, as always, it is the decision of the players and their families as to whether they attend."
•An April 6 hearing date has been set for the antitrust lawsuit a group of players has filed against the league. The suit is intended to obtain an injunction that would force the league to continue football operations so it would not be able to lock out the players. It remains to be seen whether the sides will make another attempt to negotiate in the next three weeks.
That case is scheduled to be in front of U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in Minnesota, and not Judge David Doty, who has overseen NFL labor matters since the early 1990s and — at least in the eyes of the owners — is partial to the players.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, among the litigants in the antitrust suit, said on the NFLPA conference call that he is not concerned that Doty was not assigned the case.
"To us, that's not an issue," Brees said. "That was something that the owners seem to be very concerned about and focused on. For us, it's about the facts and it's about the law, and we believe those are on our side."
Kevin Mawae, the NFLPA president, called the assertion that the players walked away from negotiations "a complete fabrication and a lie." The NFL and the players' union participated in 17 days of talks at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, twice extending the collective bargaining agreement deadline.
Mawae said that during Tuesday and Wednesday last week, over the course of 16 hours spent in mediation, the sides met face to face at the negotiating table for a total of 30 minutes.
"When you say you've done everything you can, and then you ask for a caucus that lasts 3½ hours and then you take off for dinner at the end of the day? That's not negotiating, and that's not the NFL players walking away from the deal."
Brees said the players have slammed the door on the concept of an 18-game regular season.
"I'm going to tell you right now that 18 games is not going to happen through the NFL Players Assn.," he said. "We cannot justify it for the safety and health of our players. Eighteen games was taken off the table the first time they proposed it, and it was not part of the proposal the last time we gave it to them. And it never will be."
Then again, the NFLPA in its current form cannot negotiate on behalf of the players anyway. That's just another aspect of pro football's strange new reality.