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Friday, March 4, 2011
What's the risk for Tom Brady?

By Marc Thaler
Special to ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Tom Brady is unquestionably the face of the franchise that employs him. Those three Lombardi trophies he has helped the New England Patriots win make him a face of the National Football League, as well.

And now, the two-time MVP quarterback -- whose reputation is for making plays from behind center -- is among several superstars out in front for a contentious off-the-field battle.

You know it as the NFL labor negotiations.

As MIT's Sloan School of Management hosted its fifth annual sports analytics conference Friday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, the NFL and its players' union agreed to a seven-day extension of the current collective bargaining agreement. This was in addition to a 24-hour extension that would have expired Friday at 11:59 p.m. ET. The CBA was originally set to expire Thursday at that time.

Peyton Manning
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are joining forces to help represent the players' union.

And here's where Brady enters the equation: New England's quarterback, along with Patriots guard Logan Mankins, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and Saints QB Drew Brees, among others, agreed to be the faces of the union in a potential court battle.

If the sides can't hammer out a deal or at least agree to another extension after those seven days, it is expected the NFL Players Association will decertify -- a legal move intended to keep players from being locked out by owners.

The players would forfeit their rights under labor law and instead take their chances in court under antitrust law.

"They're suing on behalf of other players; their names will be the ones that are used in the lawsuit," said Mike McCann, an associate professor of law at Vermont Law School and a legal analyst for Sports Illustrated. "It'll say, 'Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, et al' on a legal document, which, I presume, is what they're doing."

McCann said the move is a symbolic one. There's considerable upside to having star players lend their names to the fight. But, McCann added, it's also a risky maneuver.

First, the upside.

It shows solidarity exists among the league's most marketable athletes. It's a sign that the faces of the NFL are disagreeing with the league itself. Those disagreements include how all parties contributing to the country's most popular sport divide $9 billion in annual revenue.

But there's downside for the league's biggest stars, even in a move that's emblematic.

Call it the empathy factor. Fans, seeing NFL stars as the named plaintiffs, might be less inclined to empathize with athletes earning millions -- even though that's not true for all involved.

"I think the NFLPA had to struggle with that [decision], whether to go the rout of the star or to go the rout of the modest player," McCann said. "But, the modest player might not ... have the same cache."

"I think it's a little fraught with danger, frankly, depending on how the labor issue goes," said ESPNBoston.com columnist Jackie MacMullan, who moderated Friday's panel discussion at the sports analytics conference on the potentially looming lockouts in the NFL and NBA. "It's great to put a face on [the potential lawsuit]. I understand why Tom and Peyton want to do that. They want to support their union. But if it goes bad, you just never know how the public is going to react.

"And if you're connected to it in a high-profile way," she added, "there might be backlash."

George Postolos witnessed such fan-fueled fury resulting from the NBA's lockout in 1998-99.

The former president and CEO of the Houston Rockets described it as "heat." And a lockout ensures there would be plenty directed at both owners and athletes.

"You feel a different type of heat when you're in the market," Postolos said. "Local business owners, season-ticket holders, they plan around the season. It's very emotional."

Postolos said the day an agreement was reached, he made phone calls to the ticket holders and sponsors of 3,000 accounts.

In the short term, Postolos said, competitive concerns likely remain atop each team's list of priorities -- particularly with the NFL's 2011 season six months from its scheduled start date.

So, the big question is this: Will attaching Brady's name to an antitrust lawsuit make much difference in a different court -- the one of public opinion?

"This is about public relations," McCann said. "Fans are going to look at the issues and be frustrated by both sides. Using Tom Brady as a name is not going to dramatically influence fans."

Marc Thaler is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com. His e-mail address is marc.thaler@gmail.com.