MARCO ISLAND, Fla. — NFL players and their leadership tried to make a few things perfectly clear Friday:
They consider the letter Commissioner Roger Goodell sent them a day earlier an attempt to create "dissension."
They refute the league's contention that the union walked away from negotiations.
They dispute the owners' depiction of their last-minute offer made last Friday. They say it wasn't close to acceptable because it would have made salaries a fixed cost and eliminated the players' chance to share in higher-than-projected revenue growth. They say the proposal would cut players' take of more than $9 billion in annual revenues from 50 percent to 45 percent in the first year of a new contract.
Pete Kendall, the former union's permanent player representative, called the league's offer "kind of the old switcheroo." Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, his team's main representative, called it "probably the worst deal in sports history," echoing words used by NFLPA chief executive DeMaurice Smith in a radio appearance.
"If the union had a problem, the best course of action would have been to make a counterproposal, continue to discuss the issue, or explain the problem," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "They were in such a hurry to get out of the room last Friday and file their lawsuit that they never mentioned this ... issue."
Mediation cut off a week ago, and the union dissolved itself, allowing players to file a class-action antitrust suit in federal court. Hours later, when the old collective bargaining agreement expired, owners locked out the players. That created the sport's first work stoppage since 1987, and players can't sign new contracts or get paid under existing ones. Their health insurance premiums are not being paid by teams.
A hearing on the players' request for a preliminary injunction to stop the lockout is scheduled for April 6 in Minneapolis, and there appears to be little chance of a return to bargaining before then.
Aiello wrote that the league "made it clear" there would be an opportunity for players to get a share of extra revenues starting in 2015. He continued: "The union is now saying that instead of further negotiations the best thing to do was walk out of mediation, pretend to no longer be a union, and file a lawsuit. Those actions simply make no sense."
In a speech Friday to players at the NFLPA's annual meeting, Smith said he won't be paid during the work stoppage — the league's first since 1987. Goodell and NFL general counsel Jeff Pash, the league's lead labor negotiator, already said they would reduce their salaries to a dollar each.
"Our players are locked out," Smith said during a brief session with reporters. "The league made a unilaterial decision to punish the people who made this game great."
Smith said he does not consider Goodell's letter — e-mailed to all active players Thursday — an attempt to engage in good-faith negotiations. The league, he said, could attempt to restart talks by writing, instead, to lawyers representing the players now that the union has dissolved.
"Let's not kid ourselves. Jeff Pash ... knows that class counsel can always engage in discussions with counsel for the National Football League to have discussions relating to a settlement," Smith said. "He knows what letter should have been sent."
In his letter, Goodell outlined the NFL's version of last week's proposal and told players: "I hope you will encourage your union to return to the bargaining table and conclude a new collective bargaining agreement."
Players were upset by that line, particularly the reference to "your union" — the NFLPA renounced its status as a union and says it is now a trade association, which permits the court actions under antitrust laws; the league calls that move a "sham."
Clark said the letter was written "to create confusion, to create dissension among the players." Dallas Cowboys linebacker Bradie James thought Goodell's words were meant "to divide us; it's that simple."
Kendall said that throughout negotiations, the players' chance to share in increased revenues had been a key component of how to divide the NFL's yearly take of more than $9 billion, a figure both sides expect to continue to increase. He said the negotiations, until talks stopped on the 16th day of federal mediation, always revolved around the premise that if the rise in league revenues exceeded a certain percentage each year, players would get a cut.
Pash told the AP this week that the owners' final proposal was for a 10-year CBA. Kendall confirmed that.
"A 10-year, fair deal might be something worth considering," Kendall said. "A 10-year deal where the players don't participate in any of the upside is not a deal that I think is ... something that the players should have taken."