But then again...what if the NFLPA is more resolute than we think?
What if Antonio Cromartie is the exception, not the rule, and most players are prepared for a lockout?
What if the replacements roll in and the players don't budge?
It's a possibility, but then what?
What if players start signing with the UFL, CFL and newly restarted Arena Football League?
What if the NFLPA is more savvy than we think and already has a bunch of "all-star"-type games scheduled?
How Could This Happen?
We've painted the NFLPA as generally disliked by players, run by someone who doesn't really know much about football and dysfunctional and likely to collapse at a moment's notice, but then again, here are some other facts.
DeMaurice Smith was voted in unanimously by the NFL's 32 player representatives
Along the way, he beat out Troy Vincent, a five-time Pro Bowl selection and former NFLPA president; Trace Armstrong, a 15-year player and eight-year NFLPA president; and David Cornwell, a sports attorney with close links to many NFL players and a reputation for defending the interests of players, not the league.
Smith was a successful trial lawyer and has a wealth of experience "winning" people to his way of thinking.
He worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and was highly commended in his life as a lawyer, winning numerous awards. He may not know sports, but he certainly knows how to get his own way and how to get the best for those he represents.
So perhaps we have underestimated the NFLPA.
If enough players sign short-term, conditional contracts in the CFL, AFL and UFL, and if enough players agree to perform in several strategically scheduled All-Star games and put on enough high-entertainment value mini-competitions and skills events, the NFLPA could quickly gain the upper hand.
Even with replacement players, TV networks will be desperate for alternative programming, as the "alternate" Cardinals at the "alternate" 49ers is hardly going to be a national ratings winner.
The TV networks would likely be all over any additional "Pro Bowl"-style all-star exhibition game.
Fans would likely choose this over any other NFL game featuring replacements.
Can you imagine an "All-Star Pickup Game" scheduled versus a Monday Night Football game featuring replacements? I know which one I'd choose.
Same goes for the UFL or CFL if enough players join those leagues. Sure, the NFL has the brand recognition, but if the UFL (whose games are streamed free on their website right now) had all of the NFL's big-name talent, then it's not hard to imagine fans defecting to the upstart league for at least the length of the lockout.
As a spring league, the AFL could provide those NFL players who have little to no money saved up a chance to bank a little extra cash and weather the lockout without the need to opt out of the NFLPA.
How Likely Is It to Happen?
Before we begin, it's important to note this will only happen in the event of a lockout. If the NFLPA decertifies, all of this is a moot point anyway. But assuming the NFLPA does not decertify or that the league is successful in blocking them from doing so if they try, how likely is it?
It happened during the NHL lockout, with players signing short-term contracts in the European and minor leagues, so why not in the NFL?
As much fun as it sounds, unfortunately, it doesn't seem all that likely, at least not to me.
The NFLPA simply doesn't have the expertise to arrange these sorts of games. It does not have access to stadiums and has no standing TV contracts to gain the exposure necessary. It simply doesn't have the funds to stage these sorts of national events—if it did, it wouldn't need the NFL owners at all.
What's more, in the event of a lockout, several players will certainly sign some form of contract with rival leagues like the CFL or UFL, but neither league is an ideal solution and won't get enough players to provide a real alternative to the NFL.
The CFL, for example, has strict limits on the number of non-Canadian (import) players allowed on team rosters, and most would not want to drop their valuable import QBs and other skill players to bring in a star on a short-term contract if he is only going to be on the team for a few weeks before returning to the NFL.
The CFL salary cap is set at less than $5 million Canadian, so it's also not likely that there will be much money to be made from joining the CFL.
As for the UFL, while there are no such player requirements, there is a pretty much non-negotiable salary structure that will see most players paid no more than $50,000 for the eight-week season.
Many believed that the UFL was formed with an expressed goal of surviving until the lockout and then artificially growing its brand during a lockout because there is no alternative.
However, with such small salaries available, the UFL will have difficulty finding many players who will risk getting injured in the UFL only to watch the NFL resume the following week.
With Arena Football, their season starts up again in just a few weeks, on March 11, and players are set to make a flat-rate salary, set at just a few hundred dollars a game. For most, the AFL is a hobby, not their main job.
Few NFL players who played at all in 2010 are going to put their bodies on the line so soon after the close of play for so little money.
Unlike the NHL, there is no league with anywhere near the money to provide serious full-time employment for these elite athletes.
Although the NHL is the biggest hockey league in the world, Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland and Germany all have well-attended, professional hockey leagues, each of which had enough money to provide short-term employment for the biggest NHL stars, many of whom started their careers in these leagues.