NFL holds a draft with an uncertain future

Von Miller could have come out a year earlier, made some serious money, and avoided the whole unpleasant mess. He also could have stayed on the sidelines instead of joining established players in the lawsuit that, so far, is wrecking the NFL's grand strategy to make its owners even richer than they are now.

He did neither, which could lead to a potentially awkward situation Thursday night. That's when the linebacker from Texas A&M will share a stage in New York City with the man who represents a threat to his livelihood.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could be excused for being a bit nervous about the showdown. He should be, but only if he doesn't like to get big, friendly embraces.

"There's no animosity between me and him," Miller said. "I love him. I plan on giving him a hug when I walk across the stage."

Miller better hope his fellow plaintiffs in the suit aren't watching.

But if politics makes strange bedfellows, there's nothing stranger in the bitter fight between the NFL and its players than the annual show that is the NFL draft.

It's usually a time of celebration — for the teams that land the top players and the players who land the big contracts. The only uncertainty is how big the contracts will be and when they will actually be signed.

That's all changed as this year's class enters some very uncharted waters.

So what if Cam Newton goes first in the draft to the Carolina Panthers. Who knows, by the time the courts are done, Newton may be able to simply declare himself available to the highest bidder, winner take all.

Assuming, of course, that there are any bidders.

No one knows. Not the owners and their lawyers. Not the players and theirs.

And certainly not the 25 players in New York for a draft that guarantees them nothing other than a nice team hat. They're as confused as everyone else, and there's nothing to suggest they won't be on what should be the biggest night of their lives.

"There's nothing we can do about it," Baylor offensive lineman Danny Watkins said. "I can't control any aspect of it, so I'm not going to worry about it."

There's plenty to worry about, though, thanks to a labor dispute that has grown increasingly muddled since moving from the bargaining table to the courtroom. The draft — normally the showcase of the NFL offseason — is taking place while a federal judge weighs whether to grant the league's request to essentially restore the lockout.

Goodell said Wednesday the NFL was prepared for every contingency, which may help calm some draftees. But the NFL has been beaten at every turn, so far, at its own game. If there are plans to operate in a world without a collective bargaining agreement, the owners, so far, haven't revealed them.

Depending on how the judge in St. Paul rules — or what stand the federal appeals court in St. Louis eventually takes — players selected in the draft may be months away from being able to negotiate contracts with the teams that pick them. Even without a formal lockout, it's hard to imagine NFL teams making contract offers since part of the reason for the lockout was to impose a rookie wage scale.

Despite the labor impasse, the draft likely will strike TV viewers as "business as usual." Players will smile when their names are called, embrace family and friends, and walk on stage to don their new team's hat, just as they have always done.

They offer hope for their new team's future, and they give fans something to cheer for in the offseason. That won't change, even if the chance of the NFL not playing this fall doesn't seem so remote anymore.

At least one top draftee doesn't think that will happen. Patrick Peterson believes he will be playing for someone this fall no matter how nasty things get between the NFL and the (now dissolved) players' union.

"This is America's game. I can't see the world without NFL football," the cornerback from LSU said. "I believe they'll get it done, Mr. Goodell and the NFLPA."

Football fans better hope Peterson is right. Otherwise, Thursday night may be the last live NFL action they see for some time.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org