- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - After a key victory in court by NFL owners, the players say they aren’t panicking. Unity remains their motto.

How long they can remain unified is the question being asked just about everywhere else.

“I don’t see that as an issue at all,” Jets fullback Tony Richardson said. “We have kept saying throughout this process that the players are stronger than ever. That hasn’t changed.

“As disappointing as this process is, we’ve got to go through this on both sides to get to an agreement.”

Richardson and Giants defensive lineman Chris Canty were surrounded by dozens of fans as the players were honored Tuesday night at the United Way’s Gridiron Gala. Talk centered on their charity work _ each was selected a 2011 Hometown Hero for their efforts in the community _ and not on the labor impasse now in its third month. Everyone concentrated on the $2 million the dinner raised, not on the $9 billion the owners and players can’t figure out how to split.

Naturally, Richardson and Canty were aware that a 2-1 decision Monday by an 8th Circuit Court appeals panel to maintain the lockout until the league’s full appeal is heard beginning June 3 is a huge win for the owners.

The wording in that ruling by the majority strongly favored the NFL’s argument. The judges indicated they find a great deal of merit in the NFL’s claim that lifting the lockout without a new contract with the players would cause chaos and be harmful to the sport.

When asked if a crack in the players’ solidarity could result from the likelihood the lockout will last long enough to disrupt the beginning of training camps, Canty said to expect the opposite.

“DeMaurice Smith and the trade association have done a great job of keeping us unified and we’ll stay that way,” Canty said. “Ultimately, you have to be patient, hold your position and trust the people on your side to get this worked out. We have the leadership to handle the business side of it and we’re sticking together, no doubt.”

Ah, but there are doubts, the seeds of which have been planted by the league’s first significant court victory since the lockout began March 12.

“I think this decision says the NFL really controls the game board here,” said Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University’s Tisch Center. “It is a big turn of fortune because the NFL controls the timing, they can control the clock. This allows the owners to put greater pressure on the players. If the injunction had gone into effect, it would have put the players in control of the game of leverage.”

The players still believe they can prove in court that the lockout is illegal. In the meantime _ and we’re probably talking a month or more before the St. Louis court makes its decision _ eyes will focus on how unified the players remain.

Mike Vrabel, like Richardson a member’s of the NFLPA’s executive committee before it dissolved in March, stresses the need for his peers to go about their business. The players must be prepared to go back to work at any time.

“I certainly understand that the closer you get to training camp and the dates as players we’re used to reporting for training camp and playing preseason games and playing regular-season games, this thing becomes a lot more real for everybody involved,” the Chiefs linebacker said. “The players aren’t out there doing the work they’d normally be doing _ they’re doing it on their own and they’re taking a lot of risk. I think that people appreciate the fact that guys are still preparing for a season.”

Boland says the players are in “uncharted territory.”

“The players don’t have a lot of options now,” he added. “Certainly there is enough litigation remaining and they could win. They could have a game changer from their case in front of the NLRB, but there’s no indication when a decision might come there.

“So their best bet is keep negotiating.”

Others will argue that the latest victory for the owners is not a fumble recovery deep in the players’ territory. But after several wins for them _ and with another expected soon from Judge David Doty on what to do with TV money promised to the league even if no games are played _ Monday was a hard hit for the NFLPA.

“The law is on the players’ side if they can survive,” said agent/attorney Ralph Cindrich, who has been through every labor dispute between players and owners dating to the 1970s and the NFLPA’s infancy. “This is not a game changer for the owners, but it is a serious gain. The TV revenue (decision) in Judge Doty’s courtroom is critical now.”

If Doty awards the players the $707 million in damages they are seeking, as well as making the rest of the estimated $4 billion from the networks unavailable to the NFL, it would be a setback for the owners. But they could argue that because the NFLPA decertified as a union when CBA talks collapsed in March, it is not entitled to those damages.

Regardless, the spotlight will be on the courts, not the fields, for quite some time.

“Essentially the NFL does want and need to play, but there’s really no incentive from a financial and technical perspective to rush that,” Boland said. “They can allow the players to come back to them.”

Might the players’ resolve begin to fracture? NFLPA spokesman George Atallah adamantly doubts it.

“I don’t see that,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s unfortunate to say it, it’s been our responsibility as an association and for the players to prepare themselves for the possibility of missing games, and that’s what a lockout is intended to do. You have to prepare yourself, so the reality is that every player … across the league, they’ve had the obligation, and we’ve had the obligation as an association to prepare them for that possible outcome, that unfortunate outcome.”