Player reps face daunting task of keeping teammates informed

Among the many changes that have taken place since 1987, the last time the NFL saw a work stoppage, is communication on the players' side.

Back then, the late Gene Upshaw was executive director of the NFL Players Association and he preferred to keep the tightest of lids on information regarding labor negotiations. When it came to his constituents, he felt it was best to handle the dispensing of developments on a need-to-know basis. And Upshaw believed the players needed to know the absolute minimum until a deal was struck. His critics said he did so because it helped make him more powerful, but Upshaw also saw it as a way of safeguarding against loose lips possibly sinking the NFLPA ship.

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DeMaurice Smith, Upshaw's successor, is taking a radically different approach to communication during current negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

At a time when players are scattered all over the country, Smith and his staff see to it that they're as well plugged in as they can possibly be to proceedings at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Washington, D.C. The NFLPA executive committee regularly communicates with the league's 32 player representatives via conference calls, e-mails, and text messages. The player reps then pass along updates and any other material related to the talks to their teammates, mostly through e-mails and texts.

"The union's doing a great job of keeping us all abreast of what's going on," Buffalo Bills safety and player rep George Wilson told me during an interview on Sirius NFL Radio.

Why does this matter? Because unlike their predecessors, current players are exposed to far more news and opinions regarding a situation that impacts their future. In addition to the sheer growth in volume of media since '87, there also is far more attention to the NFL, whose popularity is many times greater than it was 24 years ago. Current players are used to knowing, in an instant, what is going on in their league. So when it comes to labor negotiations, they would much rather have direct access to front-line sources -- several of which are, under Smith's regime, active players -- rather than getting second- or third-hand information.

Consequently, players kept up to speed can, with technology unavailable a couple of decades ago, provide fairly instantaneous feedback through their player reps and likely help, rather than hurt, the progress of negotiations.

Skeptics who assume the rank and file doesn't care all that much about the issues and simply doesn't want to hear anything until an agreement is reached would be surprised to learn that player reps aren't the only ones engaged with the process.

"I think everybody has a pretty good sense of what's going on," Tennessee Titans guard and player rep Jake Scott told me on Sirius. "(The players) understand (the NFLPA's) position, they understand what the potential for a lockout is and where we need to be as players if we have to get ready for that."

Said Wilson, "Every time I send out an e-mail alert to my guys, I get response, I get questions. It makes me feel encouraged because the guys want to know and they want to be a part of the process, they want to let me know their views or what they might want and what they don't want."

Wilson, Scott, and other player reps not only offer obvious advice, such as saving as much money as possible, but also completing the paperwork that all players recently received to sign up for COBRA health insurance to replace the insurance the NFL no longer would provide in the event of a lockout. Some players with big contracts, such as Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White, have publicly complained about the possibility of having to pay nearly $3,000 a month for coverage. Wilson said that he and other players are prepared to "be our brother's keeper in some instances where some guys may fall on hard times and we'll have to help them out" with making premium payments.

One might also find it surprising that the splitting of league revenues, expansion to an 18-game season, and a rookie wage scale aren't the first items that players mention when talking about what is most important to them. In fact, according to Scott, "everybody agrees, on both sides, that there needs to be a rookie wage scale," although what form it takes is a matter of discussion.

"As far as veteran players, I think the biggest thing, aside from the money, is just player-safety issues, which ties into the offseason, ties into training camp -- how often we're in helmets and in shoulder pads hitting each other," Scott said. "The more we see with these concussion issues, the more long-term damage we see in ex-players, the more serious guys take it. I think that that's kind of an issue that we're not going to budge on in these negotiations."

Observations

» Christian Anthony has a couple of obstacles in his path between him and the NFL. The easy one is the fact he is from Division-IAA Grambling, which doesn't give players the type of high-profile exposure to enhance their chances of playing at the next level. For instance, Anthony wasn't even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

The more difficult obstacle figures to be the fact Anthony missed his senior season because of a scary heart-related issue that caused him to have chest pains and spend several days in intensive care. It turned out to be a freak occurrence, with an artery becoming clogged and inflamed from a hit to the chest that he received in practice. He told me it was a "life-changing" experience because his normal fall routine of playing the game he loves came to a screeching halt and he felt like he "hit a brick wall."

But on his March 17 pro day, Anthony is determined to show NFL personnel evaluators why they would be badly mistaken to overlook his skills. His underdog status is driving him to prepare to blow scouts away with his workout.

"(The heart issue) was a great, great thing that happened for me because I came back from that, and that's what I do; I'm a great fighter and I'll keep fighting," Anthony said. "It's not a chip on my shoulder; I feel like I've got a cinder block on my shoulder. And I feel like it can't be knocked off and I'm going to keep it on there until I make a big impact (on the NFL)."

The 6-foot-4, 275-pound Anthony gave a dominant showing in the week of practice before the Texas vs. the Nation All-Star game that features a number of small-school players who aren't invited to participate in more prominent all-star contests. He more than held his own against big-school offensive tackles that participated in the combine. Anthony already has proven that he has enough athleticism and versatility to play either end in a 4-3 defense or outside linebacker in a 3-4. In 2009, he tore up the Southwestern Athletic Conference with five interceptions as a defensive lineman, returning two for touchdowns. He also led the SWAC with five forced fumbles, recovered three, had eight sacks, and 15 tackles for loss.

» NFL teams are scheduled to begin voluntary offseason workouts on March 15, but most players with whom I've spoken don't necessarily view that as being a critical point in the offseason, or at least important enough that it couldn't be sacrificed by any disruption caused by either a lockout or something else from the labor front. There are some veteran players who normally are on hand for the first day of voluntary sessions, but there are others who choose to remain in their hometowns or college towns.

"For most of March and April, guys are still kind of doing their own thing," Scott said. "I don't think guys will really notice it all that much unless it stretches into that May-June time when you usually get back to doing organized team activities."

» One of the few college prospects willing to offer any substantive perspective on the NFL's uncertain labor situation is Penn State running back Evan Royster, who laments the timing of it all.

"I was thinking about how unfortunate it is that my class is coming in when all this is happening," he said. "I just hope they get a deal done and we're able to play. I don't know what I'm going to do if I have to find a job for a year and have to go back to school or something like that."

» Speaking of Royster, he is an interesting prospect because of his strengths in picking up blitzes and catching passes out of the backfield. His versatility no doubt had plenty to do with the fact that about 15 teams interviewed him during the combine. Royster compares himself to the Bears' Matt Forte, who "does everything." He isn't saying that he expects to enter the NFL and duplicate Forte's versatility, but he thinks he "can be used some similar ways."

» George Wilson thinks the Bills did plenty to help improve their defense by hiring Dave Wannstedt, a long-time NFL defensive coordinator and head coach, to be Chan Gailey's assistant head coach and linebackers mentor. Wilson welcomes whatever changes that Wannstedt, who is deeply rooted in the 4-3 scheme, might make to a Buffalo defense that struggled badly after switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4 last year.

"He knows, schematically, what we may be able to add or do to help us be better than we were last year," Wilson said. "At 4-12, we have to be open to all kinds of changes, whether it's players, schematically, just the way we go about doing things. I'm just excited to see that changes are taking place and that we're moving in the right direction."

Wilson said Wannstedt's recent stint as head coach at the University of Pittsburgh will make him a huge asset in drafting because of his familiarity with so many college players that played for him or that he coached against in six seasons with the Panthers.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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