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Go behind closed doors for a glimpse inside players-only meetings

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The importance of players-only meetings (3:39)

ESPN writer Johnette Howard discusses how players-only meetings can impact a franchise for better or worse. (3:39)

With so many elements of today's sports world having become open books -- "I don't know why any jock is even on social media today," NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley harrumphs -- the players-only meeting is one of the few things that remains sacrosanct.

Word of such meetings surfaces all the time, especially when they're held after games while reporters are kept waiting in the hallway. The slumping Houston Rockets held a players-only meeting Tuesday morning after their fourth straight loss. The Philadelphia Flyers have met behind closed doors twice already this year, and the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles convened when their seasons were teetering. Yet you'll never find anyone tweeting real-time photos of their teammates clearing the air, set off by hashtags such as #getthemessage or #passthefreakingballmore.

"What happens in the room, stays in the room," Rockets center Dwight Howard said Tuesday.

Rule No. 1 in players-only meetings is to keep the details revealed to outsiders scarce. It recently took nearly a month for word to leak out that the San Francisco 49ers held a heated meeting that turned into a mini referendum of sorts on since-benched quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

And that silence is mostly a good thing, a lot of current and former players say.

Barkley, now an analyst for Turner Sports, recalls an incident during his playing days in Philadelphia when then-76ers owner Harold Katz threw all the coaches out of the locker room and slammed the door shut, then turned toward the players and demanded to know, "Why isn't this team any good and why are we not winning more?"

"Well, we started going around the room, but, to be honest with you, a lot of times in those meetings people are just being politically correct," says Barkley, who has rarely been accused of that. "Finally, the owner turned to me and said, 'Charles, why are you not saying anything? Why are you just sitting there in the back, shaking your head?' And I said, 'Because you don't really want to hear the truth. Nobody does. The truth is, that guy sucks, and that guy sucks.'"

Uh oh.

"Yeah," Barkley says. "Both guys jumped up and were coming toward me. I picked up one of those stools that we used to sit on back in the day and a few other players jumped between us and stopped those two guys -- otherwise, the stool would've decided it. Really. I almost hit two teammates over the head with a stool."

Cris Carter, the NFL Hall of Fame receiver, and Darrelle Revis, the New York Jets' All-Pro cornerback, say a lot of players-only meetings are 50/50 propositions -- they can go either way. Kevin Millar, who played for five major league clubs, including the 2004 World Series champion Boston Red Sox, says players-only meetings happen far more often than the public ever knows. He likens them to "good old-fashioned manhunts" and necessary "maintenance."

Why? "Because when you air someone out, you often find out who's going to sink or crumble and who's going to take what's said as useful criticism,'' explains Millar, now a co-host of the MLB Network's "Intentional Talk."

"Nobody really likes to be called out," Revis says. "So usually the way it works is before every players-only meeting, someone always says, 'Let's keep what's said in this room. Let's keep it in-house.' And that is important. Otherwise everyone starts to feel if we can't trust each other, if we can't play for each other, then who can we trust, you know? You feel vulnerable."

No wonder. Five-alarm media feeding frenzies can ensue. A drifting team can be torn apart even more. Jobs may be on the line. Reputations, too.

The Flyers' first players-only meeting of this still-young season came after just two games. "It's Game 2, and you lose 7-1. I think we'd better have a little talk here," defenseman Mark Streit said after Philly's blowout loss to the Florida Panthers last month. A similarly embarrassing loss to Colorado last week prompted their second get-together. The urgency to win -- now -- is constant no matter the league.

"I think when you're in the work environment the NFL is, for example, you have 16 tests," says Carter, now an ESPN analyst. "And there's such constant pressure to win, sometimes you're better off only talking to your fellow brothers."

Technically, any player can call a players-only meeting. But in practice, it's usually the team captains or veteran leaders, sometimes after polling other players first to gauge the temperature of the room. Once things get started, little is off limits.

Players-only meetings can address anything from what needs to be fixed as a team to individual matters such as who's playing just for stats or a new contract, who's freelancing too much within the team system, who's shirking blame, who's playing like they don't want to risk injury, who needs to step up.

Players sometimes also discuss how to handle coaches' failings or how upper management decisions are affecting their play. Sometimes it's even about the players' wives and girlfriends -- how they are affecting the harmony of the team by sharing too much information, freezing out other teammates' significant others or outing who's cheating on whom.

"I've been around teams that had that," Barkley says with a sigh.

Before long, someone might be traded. And the real reason never gets out.

"Typically, you're not in a good situation as a team to begin with if you're having one of those players-only meetings," Carter says. "They can be destructive as often as it can be constructive. You have to be careful."

Revis, speaking last week after a Jets practice, said, "I've played for Tampa Bay, New England and the Jets. And you see it all in those kind of meetings. It can be intense. Emotional. I've seen guys laugh. I've seen guys cry."

Literally cry? "Oh yeah, cry," Revis says, nodding. "I've seen somebody point the finger at somebody else, and I think guys don't mean to be disrespectful, but some other people might feel it comes across that way.

"You might have some strong guys on the team that take constructive criticism like a man. You might have some guys that you already know, coming in, 'I don't need to say it like this because it's a touchy subject.' Then you have other guys that barely say a word and all of a sudden they stand up and say the most awesome, perfect thing" -- here Revis laughs -- "and then you're blinking like, 'Wow! Maybe we need you to speak up a little more, man. That was great!'"

Millar agrees, saying the success of meetings often depends on who is doing the talking.

"Usually, it's the team leaders or captains who call meetings, but there's also the guy that stands up and shouldn't be saying something, you know?" Millar says. "Don't be 'that guy.' Then it's like, 'You sit your ass down. You're part of the problem. You don't need to be talking. You're the issue!'"

"Typically, you're not in a good situation as a team to begin with if you're having one of those players-only meetings. They can be destructive as often as it can be constructive. You have to be careful."

Cris Carter

Laughing now, Millar adds, "Some guys are clueless."

The good news is, not all players-only meetings are grim exercises. Not at all.

"We had them at night at the bar at midnight -- we had many meetings at midnight," says Doug Wilson, the former NHL defenseman who is now general manager of the San Jose Sharks. "I played on some really close teams with guys [who] would have no problem speaking their mind. I think sometimes people are a little concerned with ruffling feathers, but if you really care about somebody, you tell them the truth. When players come back to the bench, they're not looking at their coach. They're looking for their teammates' approval."

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that there are times when players just feel like coaches or management need to be kept out. Or players want to have their bosses operate on the same finely regulated, need-to-know basis in which management parcels out information to them. Some teams come to think only players can truly police one another. Some just meet because they crave a different voice to critique their performance.

"A lot of times," Carter says, "the purpose is to talk about how not to let the season get away from you."

The Indianapolis Star reported recently that the Colts held a players-only meeting to discuss how to handle the front-office tension between general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano after rumors surfaced that Grigson was actually ordering Pagano whom to play.

Then -- what do you know? -- rather than succumb to chaos, Indy handed the Denver Broncos their first loss of the season.

"Coaches, the front office -- sometimes [a message] doesn't really mean anything sometimes coming from them," Millar says. "They're not out there facing 95 mph or that linebacker that's trying to take your head off. They're not trying to drop two free throws to win the game. The guys that are there in the foxhole, dripping sweat together, they know what's going on, when the travel's been tough, when your bodies are worn down and it's time to say, 'Let's get through this and hang together.'"

Sometimes maybe just a change of scenery helps.

Just before a mid-October game against the New Orleans Saints, beleaguered Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford called the offense together for a novel players-only meeting -- in the team shower. "We pray in the shower before every game," right tackle Lane Johnson said. "But that's the first meeting we've had in the shower." The Eagles, who were 1-3, won three of their next four games to pull back into the NFC East race. "It was kind of a come-to-Jesus thing," Johnson added. "He pulled us aside and said it's on us. We have the ability, and it's time to show it."

Though many teams can self-correct after players-only meetings, former NBA player and coach Doug Collins is one of the few contrarians who questions their usefulness. He says he doesn't like how coaches are often the last to know, which happened in September when Maryland football coach Randy Edsall learned from reporters on a conference call that his team had held a players-only meeting that morning. Coincidentally or not, Edsall was fired days later.

"Too often the coaches end up being blindsided and hung out in public," Collins says. "What I always felt was when you're a coach and you have your players and your team, you want all the things done within the group. The hardest thing to do is build that trust where everyone can get in the room together, everyone can say anything to each other, everyone puts agendas aside and says, 'Let's talk about what we can do. Together.'"

But when everything does fall together? The results of players-only meetings can be magical, intensely bonding -- season changing or even historically significant.

The Missouri football team's recent decision to refuse to practice or play until university system president Tim Wolfe resigned was the last shove that made it happen.

"Usually, it's the team leaders or captains who call meetings, but there's also the guy that stands up and shouldn't be saying something, you know? Don't be 'that guy.'"

Kevin Millar

Collins himself played on the 1972 U.S. men's basketball team that refused its silver medals as a show of principle after feeling cheated during their last-second 51-50 loss to the U.S.S.R.

Cleveland's march back to the NBA Finals last season started when LeBron James called a players-only meeting and laid out his precise plan on the first day of training camp, before new coach David Blatt conducted his first practice.

"I was looking like, 'Wow.' That's crazy that he broke down every individual thing he wants guys to do," Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters told Yahoo Sports. "He wrote down every player from the guy in training camp who may be here or may not be here. ... It was unbelievable. It was great."

Millar recalls a meeting among the Red Sox players in 2004 when it had been raining before they were supposed to play the Yankees. Millar says the players got wind that management, knowing more rain was in the forecast, wanted to call off the game, in part to bypass Bronson Arroyo in the starting rotation because he was a lesser light than Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. And the Red Sox players were upset.

"We called a players-only meeting and we said, 'We'll wait. We're playing the game.' We were pissed off. We thought it was bulls---," Millar says. "We felt Bronson Arroyo was as important to us as anyone. And it was pretty cool. We went into [manager Terry] Francona's office and said, 'We're playing no matter what. We'll throw our jerseys on the table if we don't play. We believe in Bronson Arroyo.'"

The game went on as scheduled. The date was July 24. It turned out to be the infamous night where Sox catcher Jason Varitek mashed his mitt into the face of Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez and both benches cleared -- then the Boston dugout cleared again when Bill Mueller hit a walkoff homer off the Yankees' great closer Mariano Rivera.

"Now I always joke we went 2-0 that night, because we won the fight and we won the game," Millar says, "and that was really the turning point in that team's season and many of our careers."

Nights such as that made the Sox believe they could get to Rivera, which they did again in the ninth inning of Game 4 of that year's American League Championship Series, sparking a historic rally from an 0-3 series deficit.

Then the Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals to end Boston's 86-year wait for a World Series title.

All of which just goes to show, maybe there really are some things only players understand.

ESPN.com NHL writers Craig Custance and Joe McDonald contributed to this report.