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DeMaurice Smith addresses agents at NFL scouting combine

By Mark Maske

INDIANAPOLIS--DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, met with agents here Friday, with the sport perhaps on the verge of its first work stoppage in more than two decades.

Smith addressed hundreds of agents during the union's annual seminar for agents at the NFL scouting combine. After Smith spoke, some of the sport's most prominent agents said they and their clients are supportive of the union's leadership.

"Great leader, very strong, instilled a ton of confidence," said one agent, Drew Rosenhaus. "Everyone is sticking together. There's unity among the agents [and] certainly among the players. There's great confidence in the leadership. There's a tremendous plan should there be a lockout. I love the position the union is taking and support the union 100 percent. We're behind De Smith. My clients are. I get a great sense from the other agents in the room. I think this has gone extremely well today."

Rosenhaus and three other powerful agents--Tom Condon, Ben Dogra and Joel Segal--spoke to reporters following Smith's address as union officials looked on.

"Our players are behind the union," Segal said. "Our players are behind De. And we are ready to support the union as strong and as hard as we can. We're ready for a fair deal for the players. We have the support of all the agents, as you see today."

Smith and other union officials traveled here Thursday night after labor negotiations with the league, conducted before a federal mediator, were put temporarily on hold. Negotiators for the league and the union met for seven straight days at the downtown D.C. offices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The agency's director, George H. Cohen, said in a written statement issued Friday that "some progress" had been made but "very strong differences remain" on the core issues of the labor dispute.

The negotiations are scheduled to resume Tuesday in Washington, Cohen announced Friday. The owners are scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday at a hotel near Dulles Airport. The labor deal between the league and union expires next Friday, and players and union officials have said they expect the players to be locked out by the owners at that point if there's no agreement on a new deal by then.

The NFL hasn't had a work stoppage since strikes by the players in 1982 and '87.

The players also could decertify the union, a move that might dissuade the owners from locking out the players and would enable the players to file an antitrust lawsuit against the owners.

One agent said he emerged from the meeting with the impression that the union and league are far from a deal.

"His position is that we want a deal and the NFL isn't moving and only says no," said the agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the labor negotiations are at a sensitive stage.

Others on the players' side of the dispute said they see little chance of a settlement next week. One person said neither side in the dispute seems to feel a great sense of urgency at this point because next season is still more than six months off. Another said he thinks the two sides are so entrenched in their bargaining positions that he now believes a work stoppage will lead the cancellation of some games next season.

Rosenhaus said of the union: "They're doing everything they can to get a fair deal for the players, working extremely hard to come to a reasonable compromise with the owners. But [Smith is] going to do what he can to protect the players, to get a fair deal, to make sure the players are prepared if there is a lockout, to prepare themselves should we miss the season and to be strong, to be unified, to have one voice."

Rosenhaus said he's holding out hope of a settlement.

"I'm always optimistic," he said. "I've got a lot of faith in De Smith and the NFLPA leadership. I've got great faith in our game. It's a very healthy game. There's a lot of money being made. I haven't seen any reason why the owners wouldn't want to get a deal done. I've been an agent for 23 years and there hasn't been a work stoppage. Why would there be now? Things have never been better. What's the problem? I'm still waiting to find out. I think the union's position has been extremely fair and, you know, quite frankly the owners need to be able to see that. They could hurt their game dramatically by locking their players out, by turning their back on their players when things are going so well."

Owners must realize, Rosenhaus said, that a lockout would create troublesome issues for teams as well as for players.

"There are some real problems for the teams," Rosenhaus said. "It's not just the players and the union. The owners need to be concerned, too. They've invested a tremendous amount of money in the players that they have under contract. There's no way for them to get better. They can't sign guys. They can't make trades. They're limited during the draft. They can only trade picks. They can't cut players once there's a lockout. They can't work their guys out. Their coaches can't talk to their players. The drug program ends. This is really a huge problem for the owners. It's not just us sitting here saying, 'Oh, wow, what about us?' The owners have some significant issues, and it's serious on their end. They're feeling it right now, believe me."

By Mark Maske  |  February 25, 2011; 3:45 PM ET  | Category:  Union Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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