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Falcons' unique summit bridges gap between management, players

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ATLANTA -- These days, when restricted free agents skip offseason workouts for more money, teams send those AWOL players warnings that contract offers will soon be reduced. At a time when owners and the players' union play chicken with the future of the NFL, something strange -- and progressively unique - happened this week.

Thirty players from the Atlanta Falcons -- including prominent players Matt Ryan and Michael Turner -- voluntarily attended a team-organized leadership and business summit for eight hours over two days. It was a unique forum that was far different from a rookie symposium or some of the continuing education seminars other teams offer their players.

The players dressed like executives and that impressed the executives who addressed them, most of whom were so wealthy and prestigious that they weren't in awe of the players' prestige or money. The ballers who delivered the message from the 16th floor offices of the powerhouse international law firm of King & Spalding were people like David Ratcliffe of Southern Company, one of the nation's top electricity companies, Jeff Arnold, the founder of WebMD and Larry Benveniste, Dean of Emory University's Goizueta Business School.

The players flocked to them when things were said and done. Not vice versa. Players have the stature to influence. These folks have the influence to influence.

"It's been a great opportunity for a bunch of the guys on the team to come listen to people who have been highly successful in a number of different areas," said Ryan, one of the most interactive players at the summit. "It's really applicable to what we do. We can take some things that will help us with not only what we do this coming year and in the future and our NFL careers but beyond that. It's been an awesome experience."

There were conversations about money management and financial planning, but primarily, established business leaders taught players how to set up their own businesses -- from fast food franchises to foundations to internet operations. Players were taught how to not only build companies and how to finance them and legally protect themselves, but also how to lead the way. Leadership was the keystone to nearly every presenter's message because they were talking to players who know about the importance of leadership. Nearly every message came through in quasi-football vernacular and equated to game-type situations to keep the audience focused.

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It was impressive to see these 20-something-year-old athletes taking notes like they were watching film and asking meaningful questions because the message was so relevant.

The bigger goal of this summit, coordinated by Falcons senior director of player development Kevin Winston, is to expand it each year not so much in numbers but in real-time success. Winston wants to see players take the messages and apply them to the foundations or businesses, on the field and life in general.

The summit was a powerful snapshot of what we're not seeing or reading about regarding the NFL this offseason: Guys doing the right thing or at least trying to, and franchises investing in their players' lives instead of divesting from them in the name of "business sense."

Team owner Arthur Blank was in attendance and his role was mostly as a facilitator to the program that benefits his players more than him, although their well-being reflects well on him.

Former Ravens coach Brian Billick, a contributor to NFL Network, a FOX Sports analyst and motivational speaker (and Falcons coach Mike Smith's brother-in-law) was one of the presenters. He told the audience that when the late 49ers coach Bill Walsh tried to hold a summit like this years ago with Stanford University professors and his team, not one player showed up because of the distrust between players and team executives.

That gulf seems to be re-establishing itself during this time of labor instability between the NFL and the NFLPA. There also seems to be a widening gap between the players and fans who've grown weary of off-field behavior problems.

Those issues will generate far more interest than players and owners and executives doing what we all would prefer athletes and owners and executives do, which is work together for a common goal toward success.

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