Boycott of NFL combine is unrealistic

Like a Hot Pocket left in the microwave or Donovan McNabb’s career, talk of a player boycott of the 2011 NFL Draft scouting combine resurfaced, heated up and then cooled down substantially this week.

As of today, there’s still no indication of such a unified act of protest actually happening. All those visions you had of Cameron Newton, J.J. Watt and Brandon Harris walking arm and arm up and down the streets of Indianapolis, chanting and hoisting signs of protest about a rookie wage scale? You can probably put them to rest, for now.

When asked of the rumors of a proposed boycott, George Atallah, the assistant executive director of external affairs for the NFL Players Association, told me Tuesday: “They’re absolutely false. We understand this is an opportunity for young men to live out their lifelong dreams and would never interfere with their first interview in the process.”

What has been reported by multiple sources, though, is that NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has been speaking with some of the game’s top player agents since the Super Bowl to discuss the potential effectiveness of having prospects skip the combine, as well as refusing to take part in any NFL events surrounding April’s draft. That would include the various pre-draft TV appearances, the league-sponsored photo shoots and the promotional events and shaking hands/kissing baby tours the league’s top rookies are traditionally subjected to each April.

How would prospective rookies skipping the one opportunity to work out in front of all 32 teams’ scouts, coaches and leading personnel men benefit their respective draft stocks? Well, it wouldn’t. At all.

Though the league’s suggested five-year rookie contracts for first-round picks – the NBA system is two years with an option for a third – would most negatively affect this year’s class of first-round picks. There’s a lot more to lose than to gain for this crop by not working out in Indianapolis next week.

As one former league personnel man told me this week: “The draft is in place for April, no matter what goes on between then and now at the negotiating table. There is money out there for these agents’ clients at the combine. Go get it.”

Makes sense.

Furthermore, the combine has always served as a hotbed for exposure and a place for relatively unknown players to put their names on the national radar. Whether it’s Mike Mamula, Vernon Davis or Haloti Ngata, NFL hopefuls routinely have boosted their draft status with strong performances in Indy. They also get the opportunity to build their respective “brands."

Dan Schawbel, a personal branding expert and CEO of Millennial Branding, explains: “Skipping the combine could have severe impacts on some of these players’ personal brands as they look to start their careers. Without the visibility they would gain from such an event, they risk improving their draft stocks and the opportunity to gain much-needed buzz heading into the draft, which would obviously lead to better careers and more marketing money out of the gate.”

So, why would the 2011 rookies even consider a boycott?

Because by skipping the combine and leaving Lucas Oil Stadium devoid of players next week, the league would be hurt where its pain is felt the most: its wallet. It would be some statement of solidarity.

A boycott would be one of the few surefire ways the players could flex their muscles this offseason, sending one of the league’s most anticipated and hyped offseason events into a complete tailspin.

In the short term, as the two sides remain in limbo, trying (or better put, not trying) to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement by the March 3 doomsday date, a lack of player participation in the combine would create a PR nightmare for the league. Just imagine the NFL-starved sports media’s reaction.

It also would mean a wasted investment for all 32 owners – someone needs to front the bill for travel, hotel, and preparation – and a black eye for the NFL during one of its few offseason periods of revenue and fan interest.

Sure, certain players would be negatively impacted by not getting the opportunity to work out on the grand stage that the combine provides. Particularly, the late-round picks looking to prove they’re worthy of earlier selections, and the late-round fringe prospects straddling the bridge between undrafted free agent and seventh-round status would be stung pretty hard. The league, though, would be burned badly, as well.

The NFL Network treats the event as an offseason boom time of TV ratings and fan interest. The network uses the combine to kick off its 24/7 draft coverage blitz and generate fan interest, get that coveted clip of Rich Eisen running the 40-yard dash and position analyst Mike Mayock as the game’s preeminent draft expert. Without a combine, though, there’s none of that.

There’s just an empty stadium for seven days, a bunch of NFL personnel clogging St. Elmo’s restaurant in Indianapolis with nothing but a labor dispute to talk about and a lot of shrugged shoulders from ex-players serving as on-air personalities. Quite simply, it would be a disaster.

But the league should (and likely will) get the first of their two big offseason events next week. Though the skipping of the combine would be a tremendous act of solidarity and proof of the union’s strength, it’s just not likely. Atallah said the NFLPA isn’t actively pushing for such an act, and some agents simply don’t see the benefits of a boycott.

With something like this, it has to be an all-or-nothing united front.

David Canter, the CEO of DEC Management, has been representing players for 15 years. One of the few agents willing to speak publicly on the issue, he’s openly opposed to a boycott of the combine.

"The combine is a privilege, not a right, and it’s the only place to be evaluated by all 32 teams’ decision makers,” Canter said Tuesday. “The combine is one of the best ways to elevate your status in the draft. If the NFLPA could get every single agent and every single player to agree to sit it out, a boycott would be a tremendous embarrassment to the league, sure. But, in the end, I do not see it possible or very likely.”

Canter has seen his clients Eric Weddle and Troy Williamson both significantly bolster their respective draft stocks because of stellar combine performances.

“Any agent that would advise his clients to boycott on an individual basis because of the labor issue would only validate their lack of vision and stupidity," Canter said. "It violates the responsibility we have as contract advisors to prepare our clients and help them do the right thing. One or 10 or even 30 players boycotting the combine and workouts won’t make the negotiations go faster or smoother or have the CBA resolved any sooner. I understand that the union and us agents have to protect the players and get the best deal possible, but I just don’t know if a combine boycott is the right device to get us to where we need to be.”

Then, what is? The draft itself?

It’s tough to stomach the thought, but if a new CBA is not worked out by 11:59 p.m. on March 3, there’s a good chance there won’t be one worked out by April 28. And if there’s no deal signed and we’re nearly two months into negotiations (or non-negotiations), there’s a far better chance of agents getting their players to skip the annual trip to New York to pose for a few photos and don a team’s baseball cap than there is of them missing next week’s workouts.

In short, the combine’s going to happen next week. Ignore the noise of a boycott. You’ll get your 40-yard-dashes, your bench presses and your Wonderlic tests.

But it might be the last glimpse of football you get for a long, long time. Savor it while you can.

This week’s 10 offseason loose ends

1. My favorite moment of Super Bowl week wasn’t being introduced to Brooklyn Decker, taking photos with my fellow Monmouth County, N.J., native Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino or chatting about the ’99 Rams with Trent Green and Kurt Warner. It was seeing Jim Mora Jr. and Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas engaged in a 10-minute heart-to-heart conversation in the hallway of the media hotel. I would pay good money to find out what they could possibly have been talking about.

2. I’ve read Jason Whitlock’s complaints and think the Hall of Fame voting process could probably use a little tweaking. It certainly does have a Boss Tweed feel to it, riddled with secrecy and behind-closed-doors conversations. If anything, I would love to see those six hours of back-room debate televised. The NFL Network televises everything else involved with the process. Why not give us a bunch of veteran sports writers losing their voices over whether or not Cris Carter deserves a spot in Canton? And by the way, I would take the great John McClain, who started covering the Houston Oilers in 1977 and is still one of the best beat men alive, in a shouting match over any of the other 43 voters. If you haven’t heard McClain’s unmistakable voice, check out some of the NFL Network’s “Top 10” programs.

3. I know Justin Bieber’s popular, but seeing Manny Pacquiao sport the kid’s haircut at the Pacquiao-Mosley fight press conference on Monday showed me that the kid has really made it.

4. Three players’ workouts I’m intrigued to see in Indy next week: South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders, North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn and North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin. All three players were dismissed from their respective teams and missed the entirety of the 2010 season. All three players could be first- or second-day draft picks.

5. The Patriots have three of the first 33 picks in April’s draft. Look for them to scoop up a stud offensive lineman – Boston College’s Anthony Castonzo would make a lot of sense – a pass-rushing outside linebacker and a solid 3-4 defensive end with those three picks. Patriots fans may be clamoring for a deep threat at wideout or a go-to running back with one of those selections, but I just don’t see it.

6. You know it’s the middle of February if Mike Francesa’s dedicating a half-hour of his radio show on a Monday afternoon to complaining about Bill Murray’s shtick at a recent pro-am golf tournament. You also know it’s the middle of February if I’m talking about NASCAR and a hockey brawl on Fox News Channel. Ah, mid-February, truly the dark days of sports.

7. Looking for a great book to lift you through these non-football months? Pick up “Scorecasting,” by SI’s Jon Wertheim and his old buddy from summer camp, Toby Moskowitz. Great “Moneyball”-style look at sports and all of its great randomness. There’s a fantastic opening chapter on official Mike Carey’s decision to not call the Eli Manning-to-David Tyree play in Super Bowl XLII a dead ball and an “in the ground." Despite what New England fans might tell you, it was the right call.

8. It’s a shame Ian Eagle’s not on Twitter. The hardest-working man in the business makes tuning into unwatchable New Jersey Nets basketball somewhat enjoyable.

9. Remember when Anderson Cooper was the host of ABC’s reality show “The Mole”? Me neither. But here’s a good clip proving it happened.

10. I know I’m in the minority on this, but I still think Alabama’s Marcell Dareus will go before Auburn’s Nick Fairley in April’s draft. Dareus could be a dominant 3-4 defensive end at the next level. I don’t think Fairley is “the next Ndamukong Suh,” as he’s been described as some. Fine player, sure, but he’s no Suh.