GREEN BAY, Wis. – NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith sees new signs that owners are preparing for a football-free 2011.
With support from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, he asked fans to take the players' side.
Speaking at a tailgate-style fan luncheon a few blocks from Lambeau Field on Tuesday, Smith referred to a recent Sports Business Journal report that said the NFL is requiring banks that lend money to its teams to extend grace periods for loan defaults through the end of the 2011 season in the event of a lockout.
"That to me is a step where the owners are protecting themselves in the event that there is no season," Smith said.
Smith said that move, along with provisions in television deals that provide for some payments even if there is a lockout, are evidence that owners are planning for the possibility that there won't be a season in 2011.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello noted that the players are going through the process of approving the potential decertification of their union, a move that could be seen as preparing for protracted negotiations.
"There are many preparations taking place, including the union preparing to decertify and go out of business," Aiello said. "Our focus is on negotiating a new agreement with the union. The longer it goes, the tougher it will be and we are not sure if this union plans on continuing to be a union."
Rodgers, the Packers' newly elected player representative to the union, asked the crowd of about 300 fans for their support.
"We're going to keep you guys daily on our minds and we realize how much this means, and affects not only us but this community," Rodgers said. "We thank you for your support, and stand with us. It's going to be a tough fight, but we're trusting that in the end everything's going to turn out to way it's supposed to."
In a meeting Monday, Packers players voted to become the latest NFL team to give the union approval to decertify in the event of a lockout. Decertification would give players the right to sue the NFL under antitrust laws if there is a lockout, a threat that could strengthen the players' position in CBA negotiations.
Smith said lawsuits have played an important role in past gains by the players, referencing late Packers icon Reggie White's role in the implementation of today's free agency system.
"Look, the fact is most of our fans who love this game right now believe mistakenly that free agency was a gift to the players," Smith said. "That's not true. Reggie White and Freeman McNeil put their careers on the line and had to sue for free agency."
But Smith wouldn't say whether the union or individual players currently are considering a new lawsuit, or are simply relying on the threat of legal action to force owners to make concessions in negotiations.
"The only thing that we will do is continue to protect our interest," Smith said.
Smith said players have always been willing to keep playing under an extension of the existing CBA, and reiterated complaints that owners refuse to open their financial records. As the NFL's only publicly owned franchise, the Packers are the only team that makes it financial information public.
The Packers posted an operating profit of approximately $9.8 million in the fiscal year that ended March 31, down from $20.1 million the previous year. Taking into account investment losses that were less severe, the team reported net income of approximately $5.2 million, up from $4 million.
"Show us the financial data that says that the National Football League is in some sort of economic (hardship)," Smith said. "And so far all we've heard back is from their lead negotiator, who said that's none of our business."
Smith took a positive tone when he spoke about his good working relationship with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, but wasn't willing to estimate how likely it was that a new deal could come together in the near future.
"It seems to me that the greatest gift we could possibly give is a Christmas gift where we sign a new deal and tell people that football for our fans is not only going to continue, but the businesses that rely on football and the jobs that this game generates are going to be secure," Smith said.