- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS | Vikings linebacker Ben Leber is fluent in zone dog blitzes and cover 2 dropbacks.

When it comes to the legalese, however, that’s another story. As the NFL labor fight moves from the mediation room to the court room, players are trying to learn the ins and outs of filing a lawsuit and the legal labyrinth that follows.

“For a player it can be frustrating at times, because now we’re in the hands of the legal system,” Leber said. “None of us are lawyers and we don’t always understand the legalities of the dispute, so we just have to learn on the fly.”

Leber is one of the plaintiffs in a suit the players filed against the league last Friday and was a Vikings assistant player representative for the union before it decertified. He also sat in on some of the negotiating sessions in Washington a few weeks ago, so he is well versed in the complexities of the collective bargaining agreement.

But now that the dispute is headed to the courts, he finds himself having to do more to stay on top of the developments. Leber isn’t reading “Lawsuits for Dummies” or watching “A Few Good Men” to get acquainted with the nuances, but he is consulting agents and lawyers and doing research on the Internet.

“As one of the player reps for the team I’m keeping in contact with the guys and with the union. Trying to amass as much knowledge as I can,” Leber said. “Sometimes, honestly, I’ve had to get on the Internet and (go) to legal websites just to learn what some of these legal terms mean.”

Acquiring that knowledge is hard enough for a law student, let alone for a pro football player who has spent his adult life studying game film, not appellate court rulings.

In the most basic layman’s terms, 10 players including Leber, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have sued the league for anticompetitive practices in an attempt to force the NFL to end its labor lockout that began early Saturday.

“Coming into this whole situation with the CBA and the antitrust stuff, it’s kind of complicated to us,” fourth-year Vikings safety Tyrell Johnson said. “It’s like learning a new language. It’s very foreign to me and a lot of younger players. The older players probably have a better idea about it. I remember my first couple years, I didn’t even know what the CBA was. A lot of it is way over my head.”

And it’s not just the young guys who are having a difficult time getting the hang of it. Ravens center Matt Birk, who studied finance at Harvard, has tried to stay as educated as possible to help advise his teammates of the developments. But he said there comes a certain point where he has to sit back and let the attorneys do their jobs while he concentrates on readying for what he hopes will be his 14th NFL season.

“I’m not a lawyer and I don’t have any desire to be a lawyer,” Birk said Tuesday. “I don’t get too wrapped up in it. My focus is still working out and going through my routine. My focus is still football. … Back when we were a union, they would explain to us what was happening and the possible scenarios. We’re kind of learning as we go.”

Many players find themselves having to lean on former player reps, agents, advisers and attorneys.

“Let’s face it, this is a huge and complex issue, so really it’s routine with any conversations we are having here with our players, my partner Ben Dogra and I, we are discussing the collective bargaining process,” prominent agent Tom Condon said. “I am reinforcing what they are hearing from the players association, and if they need some clarity, we are happy to provide anything we can.”

If the players have any advantage in picking things up quickly, it may be that they’re used to cram sessions because they face a new opponent every week. Players are often required to learn complex schemes — say, the West Coast offense or the Blitzburgh defense — in just a few days.

“Sometimes football can probably be as complex as the law,” Birk said. “But at the end of the day, we’re just people like everybody else. We’re learning about terms like decertification and injunction, just like fans are who are watching this closely.”

Former All-Pro defensive tackle Kevin Williams of the Vikings said he think the players’ leaders have done well to keep them informed on the major issues and developments.

“I think for the most part, everybody gets the big picture,” Williams said. “The long version is it’s complicated and you can’t really understand everything that goes into it.”

But for players like Ryan Longwell, whose contract with Minnesota expired after last season, keeping up with every little detail has become imperative. He’s more than willing to do some extra work.

“What I found out is one word can change the whole meaning of everything,” Longwell said. “I think it’s important, no matter how long it takes, to understand the facts and not what the PR machine is trying to get you to believe.”


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