Monday, March 14, 2011
With NFL season on ice, here's some advice
By Tim Graham
For the next few weeks -- and possibly months -- NFL players won't have much to do. The work stoppage could turn insufferable.
Players will work out while they're motivated. Some will assemble in groups for informal practices. But without coaches or contract incentives to motivate them, enthusiasm will be difficult to uphold.
Boredom will be an issue. Athletes, used to being told where to go, when to be there and what to do, will be on their own. It could feel like an interminable period until they put on their practice uniforms and take orders from their head coaches again.
This in uncharted territory for NFL players, but those around the NHL know all about the lamentable process that's about to unfold.
NFL outside labor counsel Bob Batterman, left, and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson arrive at labor negotiations. Batterman also orchestrated the NHL owners' strategy during their lockout.
The NHL became the first major North American sports league to wipe out a full season with their 2004-05 lockout. The man who oversaw the NHL owners' strategy, Bob Batterman, now is helping NFL owners get what they want.
What advice do NHL players have for their football counterparts to endure purgatory?
"Know what the plan is going to be, not only with your money, but physically and emotionally," New York Rangers goaltender Martin Biron said. "Keep yourself ready. But if you're in March and thinking about all that right now, you're probably too late and you're going to be scrambling."
From this point forward, NHL players insist diversions are crucial. Group workout sessions, travel, hobbies, college courses ... Whatever it takes to keep your mind off being out of work.
"You've got to find a way to stay busy," Philadelphia Flyers center Daniel Briere said. "Staying at home, waiting by the phone for something to happen, probably is the worst thing. You'll drive yourself crazy.
"That's also easier said than done when you have a career and you're used to going to the field or the rink."
Practically the moment Biron stepped out of bed, he logged online in search of the latest labor developments. He scrolled through his e-mail for official union updates. Biron visited the NHL Players Association site. He checked legitimate news sources for rare developments. He'd even settle for rumors, searching through fishy blogs and message boards.
Biron went through this maddening cycle several times each day until he went back to bed.
"That, for a while, drove me absolutely bonkers," said Biron, a Buffalo Sabres teammate of Briere's during the lockout. "My everyday life was consumed, which I regret. I wasn't able to step away."
Union solidarity will be imperative for NFL players. The rank and file must make worthwhile use of their time to maintain an overall well-being.
"If you're bored and sitting at home, those were the guys that put the pressure on, were calling their union reps constantly," Briere said. "That's when things turn ugly."
Said Biron: "It became very negative and frustrating for a lot players because we were all told to be stay prepared and be educated, but you had a lot of guys who are between 20 and 30 years old and were having a good old time."
Retired forward Kevyn Adams, the Carolina Hurricanes' union representative during the lockout, emphasized ongoing communication will be important for NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith.
"Make sure you know exactly what the pulse of the league is," Adams said. "Don't let a few players' voices be the ones that carry everyone.
"It's very, very important that the director goes around and is talking to every player -- 'How are you feeling?' -- not just in front of a group where players are nervous to say things. Make sure you take the pulse of all the players."
Granted, it was much easier for NHL players to occupy themselves during their lockout than it will be for NFL players this year.
Unlike football, hockey is an established international sport with a minor league system. Unemployed NHLers could go off to Russia, Czech Republic, Finland, Switzerland or myriad other destinations to play. Some dropped down to the minors and skated in the American Hockey League.
NFL players have three possible options: the United Football League, Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League. None of them are too viable, though.
Playing in another league comes with significant risk. An NFL player under contract who suffers a serious injury elsewhere could get cut, be forced to repay bonus money or not get paid while on the physically unable to perform list.
Another issue would be negotiating individual walkout clauses to leave an alternative league and rejoin the NFL once the lockout ends. Players could be stuck once the NFL starts up again.
CFL and UFL schedules overlap with the NFL. The CFL doesn't offer walkout clauses and probably wouldn't make exceptions because of its working affiliation with the NFL. The UFL might be reluctant to cater to players in light of ESPN reporter Chris Mortensen's story the financially troubled league is seeking investment dollars from the NFL.
The most likely football defectors would be free agents at the bottom of an NFL roster or practice squad players. They have no guarantees of making a team in 2011 anyway and need paychecks the most.
Like the NHL players who went overseas, however, injuries always are possible.
"When I evaluated the pros and cons I found it was better for my game to keep playing," Briere said. "I was willing to risk an injury to come back and be in hockey shape. But everybody has a different decision to make. It might be safer not to play for some."
Biron decided not to play. He still bemoans that decision because it would have kept his mind focused on the next game, training, fixing competitive flaws and not lockout minutiae.
Instead, Biron worked out with a group of players at a rink in suburban Buffalo.
"The first month, we were on the ice five days a week," Biron said. "The second month, four days. The third month, three. After Christmas it was a couple times to make an appearance.
"You saw a lot of the guys who kept themselves in the game and played in the American Hockey League or even Europe were some of the stronger players coming out of the lockout."
Adams' trick to prevent slacking was teaming up with workout warriors. Adams couldn't play in Europe because of his role with the union. But he didn't have trouble staying in hockey shape -- not even in Raleigh, N.C. -- because one of the NHL's legendary training fiends.
"The secret weapon I had was Rod Brind'Amour," Adams said. "He was one of the guys I'd meet every day to stay ready. You don't take days off when you're working out with Rod.
"If you have trouble working out or staying self-motivated, then you better get around people. It doesn't take much to get passed by. There's such a fine line between being an elite level athlete at the highest level and not playing. If you let your conditioning slip or don't work as hard as the guys trying to take your job you'll be out of the league."
Perhaps it's no coincidence Adams and the Hurricanes emerged from the lockout and hoisted the next Stanley Cup.
In the NFL, players are entering the great unknown. Some will work on finishing their degrees. Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski boxed on the undercard of a big Las Vegas show over the weekend. New York Jets inside linebacker Bart Scott participated in a pro wrestling event.
Again, whatever it takes to cope.
"My goal," Briere said, "was to be able to look back at it and say 'At least I didn't waste it. At least I did something good with the wasted year.' "