Fans cry for football; seems they'll get it

BY Alex Marvez • April 28, 2011

The booing began 20 minutes before the NFL draft began.

As he tried to conduct a moment of silence for those killed and affected by the storms that have ravaged the Southeastern U.S., Commissioner Roger Goodell was serenaded with jeers and "We want football!" chants by the typically raucous Radio City Music Hall crowd. Goodell eventually succeeded in quieting the noise when he explained his intention, but the respite was short-lived.

Goodell was brutalized when he took the stage again Thursday night to announce the draft's first pick. He tried to quell the response, but the negativity only increased when Goodell announced that Carolina chose Newton with the first pick.

"I got you," a smirking Goodell said as part of his introductory comments. "Let's get back to some football."

On the bright side, the NFL actually appears set to do just that — even if it's being dragged kicking and screaming into doing so.

For the first time since becoming a big-business television venture, the draft wasn't the only NFL game in town. In the face of rising court pressure, the league announced plans Thursday afternoon to at least partially lift its lockout. There still will be no personnel moves like trades and free-agent signings permitted for now, a decision that may leave the league in contempt of federal judge Susan Nelson's order that the league begin its calendar year.

But starting on Friday morning, players at least will be welcomed again at team headquarters. They are allowed to work out in club weight rooms and receive playbooks and medical treatment as part of standard offseason protocol.

Some players tried to report Thursday, per guidance from NFL Players Association attorneys, but were turned away. Tennessee Titans guard and NFLPA representative Jake Scott even accused the team of hiring "excessive security" to shoo away players (a claim the team denied).

The environment was just as toxic behind the scenes. Attorneys for both sides in the Brady v. NFL lawsuit exchanged four — four! — legal letters with a St. Louis appellate court arguing about whether a temporary stay to the lockout should be issued. It wasn't until midway through the draft that it was reported a court ruling would not be issued Thursday night.

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith went so far as to declare the league's partial lockout lift as a "great day for our country" because "football is back." The former was a poor choice of words considering the aforementioned weather-related tragedy, but Smith has reason to gloat. While it's still unknown whether his long-term tactic of union decertification and litigation will result in a better labor deal, Smith's strategy has paid early dividends.

Unless the appellate court rules otherwise, NFL players will be getting back to work. A good number will land lucrative free-agent contracts (although who exactly will be eligible to hit the market remains unknown). And most importantly, the NFL is now back on track for an on-time start to the 2011 season.

Not that Goodell will be cut any slack for this. Once considered a breath of fresh air to stodgy predecessor Paul Tagliabue, Goodell has seen his approval rating take a tumble during the lockout. Whether fair or not, Goodell is forced to face the brunt of fan anger while representing the owners who are better financially prepared to withstand the loss of an entire season than the players.

Last month, it appeared potential first-round picks might shun the draft at the urging of the NFLPA. The NFLPA relented from that stance, which resulted in the league inviting a whopping 25 players to its draft-week festivities.

One of them who accepted was Von Miller, the star Texas A&M linebacker who is one of 10 players involved in the Brady v. NFL antitrust lawsuit that has led to this messy court battle. After he was selected No. 2 overall by Denver, Miller was the first of many picks to give Goodell a long embrace after having their names called.

That was one of the few positives Thursday for the commish. After what happened Thursday, he needed a hug.

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