THERE WAS A union rally disguised as a meet-and-greet/drink-and-eat for Eagles fans and Philadelphians of a labor sort last night at the Water Works Restaurant. There were speeches and exhortations and expressions of support for NFL players in their current contract tussle with the league, including this from Patrick J. Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO: "We'll be down there on Pattison Avenue if we need to be."

It harkened back to a time, 20-something years ago, when NFL players went on strike and the owners continued on with scab players and union truck drivers paralyzed the streets around Veterans Stadium. About 4,000 people came to the first game, the name of Eagles quarterback Guido Merkens was misspelled on his jersey, the whole thing was a farce, all of the scab records are still in the record book despite said farce, it all lasted about a month, and it has never happened again in the NFL.

Anyway, at one point, a group stood there last night on a small riser with DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL Players Association: former players Ron Davis and Garo Yepremian, current Eagles Winston Justice and Ellis Hobbs. And while we are still months away from this thing coming to a crisis point, it was hard not to look at Hobbs standing there, just weeks removed from what could have been a devastating neck injury, with an NFL future that is uncertain at best, and wonder.

And to conclude that anybody who criticizes NFL players for fighting for every last nickel they can get just doesn't get how disposable these guys have always been.

This is not to take a side in the argument between players and owners because there is no right and wrong. It is a labor struggle, a test of economic strength between two parties, and nothing more or less than that.

But anybody who believes that NFL players can be painted as greedy or undeserving did not see the replay of the kick return, of that helmet-to-helmet hit that Hobbs sustained, of the sickening compression of his neck that Hobbs endured, or the nervous minutes that followed.

"I'm not making any guarantees - I'm just taking it one day at a time," Hobbs said. He said talk of his retirement is premature, as is talk about plans for surgery. He said he is relaxing with his family right now, but nobody is kidding anybody here. The odds he faces are not insignificant.

But that is what NFL players deal with every day, even in practice. We see it so much that we become immune to it - and they even seem to become immune to it, until it happens to them. They try to protect themselves within a cocoon of bravado, but it can be punctured in a second.

They have a much higher injury rate than players in other sports, and they have less guaranteed money. Yes, they make a fabulous living - but football players pay a physical price that none of their brethren in the other sports have to consider. They deserve everything they can get, and they would be crazy not to fight the owners' current attempt to take back some of the players' share of the revenue because of an ownership problem; that is, the owners share a smaller percentage of revenue than they did 20 years ago and have created a rich man/poor man dynamic within their ranks.

The players say the owners will lock them out if a deal does not get done after this season - maybe in March, maybe in the summer. Their strongest weapon against a lockout is the same one they used after the failed strike of 1987, when so many players crossed picket lines (but not the Eagles, who remained united thanks to the leadership of player reps John Spagnola and Reggie White, and thanks to the support of coach Buddy Ryan). That is, the union decertified, the players filed an antitrust lawsuit in federal court in Minneapolis, and won their free agency.

All of these years later, it remains the tactic that the owners fear most - which probably explains why players on each team have voted to authorize decertification, just in case. Because through all of this time, the judge in that original lawsuit, a man named David Doty, has continued to supervise the change of every comma in the collective bargaining agreement. Because it was birthed out of an antitrust suit, football is the only sport that has such an arrangement with the courts.

Back when, Doty threatened to impose a free-agency scheme on both sides if they didn't reach an agreement on their own - which they did. Most of it remains in existence today. In recent years, the owners claimed Doty is biased against them and tried to have him removed, but they failed. Past the age of 80 now, the judge remains in place, a presence that clearly makes the owners nervous if the union were again to enter his arena.

Lockout? Decertify? I know, you don't care. But before forming an opinion, or deciding that the players are greedy, just think about Ellis Hobbs for a second. That's all. *

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