INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL Players Association doesn’t want a lockout. It wants a deal.
On Friday, union executive director DeMaurice Smith and four of the league’s most prominent agents put on a unified front at the league’s annual scouting combine. The hope is the union and the NFL can agree on a new collective bargaining agreement before the current one expires next week.
If they can’t, a lockout could begin next Friday.
“We want a deal and our hope is it will get done as quickly as possible,” Smith said before entering the afternoon session of a daylong meeting with player agents.
When asked to characterize the last seven days of negotiations with a federal mediator, Smith declined to answer. He said “thanks” and briskly walked away.
Both sides have abided by mediator George Cohen’s request to keep quiet about negotiations, even as the league and union have spent the past two days going over contingency plans and possible lockout rules.
The union took the unusual step of putting Tom Condon, Ben Dogra, Drew Rosenhaus and Joel Segal side-by-side in a show of support for the players. The agents represent some of the league’s biggest names, including brothers Peyton and Eli Manning, Michael Vick, Drew Brees and Terrell Owens.
“The agents are unified. We are 100 percent behind Dee Smith and my clients are 100 percent behind Dee Smith,” Rosenhaus said. “He’s doing everything he can to get a fair deal with the owners.”
It’s been a strange week at the combine, one of the league’s biggest and busiest offseason events.
Three blocks away from the opening workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts and next year’s Super Bowl, Smith was talking to agents about how to handle a lockout.
On Thursday, the same day the Super Bowl host committee unveiled its logo, NFL officials were discussing contingency plans with coaches and general managers in a local hotel. Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio called it an informational session.
“We know we’re going to play football in 2011, so our preparation has not changed one bit,” Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak said Friday. “Like everyone else, if (a lockout) does take place, we’ll adjust and be able to handle it.”
And then there are the NFL prospects showing off their talents for interested teams.
During Smith’s speech, some agents at the closed-door meeting began tweeting that a lockout would prevent draft prospects from speaking with team representatives during pre-draft workouts on their college campuses. NFLPA spokesman George Atallah and the four agents quickly quashed those reports.
“With draft-eligible players, we will continue on as we have in the past,” Condon said. “We anticipate they will work out here, they will do their pro days and they will have visits with those teams.”
The future pros, who aren’t in the union yet, didn’t know it was an issue.
“I haven’t heard any of that,” Nebraska receiver Niles Paul said. “Honestly, as of right now, I’m not focused on that. I’m only doing what I can control. I’m confident they’ll get a deal done, but I’m here for the combine and trying to put myself in the best position to be drafted.”
Players and teams will have to deal with plenty of other obstacles, though.
Without a CBA, the agents said, free agency would be delayed and the players selected in April’s draft would not be able to sign contracts. Teams, they believe, also would not be permitted to cut players or sign undrafted free agents immediately after the draft.
“I’m optimistic,” Rosenhaus said. “Things have never been better in the league, and I think this deal has been extremely fair and that they (the owners) could hurt the game dramatically by locking the players out.”
The most recent CBA was signed in 2006, but owners exercised an opt-out clause in 2008.
Owners want a greater percentage of the roughly $9 billion in annual revenue that is shared with the players. Among the other significant topics in negotiations: a rookie wage scale; the owners’ push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; and benefits for retired players.
The threat of a lockout has sped up the pace of negotiations.
After months of infrequent and sometimes contentious talks, the sides went more than two months without any formal bargaining until Feb. 5, the day before the Super Bowl. The sides met again once the next week, then called off a second meeting that had been scheduled for the following day.
But over the previous seven days, the two sides spent more than 40 hours in front of Cohen. Those talks ended Thursday and are scheduled to resume Tuesday.
“The players want football to continue, the fans have made it abundantly clear they want to see football and the businesses want football to continue, too,” Smith said.