By Dan Bernstein– Senior Columnist

(CBS) When NFL players decertified their union months ago, it was a cosmetic, procedural move to pave the way for antitrust litigation in an attempt to gain leverage against owners bent on grabbing a bigger share of the profits.

But as we approach the first real deadline in negotiations – the one where preseason revenues are at stake – the NFLPA’s mixed messages, poor communication and questionable leadership are making that technicality seem all too real.

Get your stories straight, guys. Figure out what you want the public to hear and present it in unified fashion. Absent that kind of control, you look like you’re trying to save face while getting steamrolled.

Yesterday’s pattern was familiar to anyone who has been following the process, even casually. Saints QB Drew Brees goes on the record saying a settlement is “very close,” only to have anonymous sources from his side refute it strongly later in the day. While it’s common for such statements and denials to come from the adverse sides of the table, often we’ve seen the players debating themselves in the court of public opinion.

Union chief DeMaurice Smith has a difficult job in just managing the large, messy group he represents, let alone locking horns with Roger Goodell and the owners. It was bizarre to read the statement released by Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (in which they announced that their most recent offer was “fair,” and that it was “time to make a deal”), when considering Brees’s other comments.

Solidarity is no less important in the endgame of negotiations, when both sides are clawing for last-gasp victories. It was surprising to hear one of the highest-profile players – a hardliner, one of the named plaintiffs in that antitrust suit, in fact – undermining his side’s public stance and necessitating a clarification from his own people, especially after the inflamed rhetoric from the union during Super Bowl week and in the court proceedings.

Rank-and-file players aren’t helping either, with too many guys saying stupid things, or getting arrested in their idle time, further eroding public support. It has to be jarring to Smith and others when the next player interviewed says “I don’t know about all that, I just want to play football,” since that’s exactly what the owners wanted to hear. And Twitter lets them monitor everything, since players are not exactly sticking to labor talking points.

The bet they made by locking the doors was that they could scare the players into concessions, eventually starving them if need be. Thanks to both a unified front and some rulings that have denied any clear-cut union advantage, it seems to be working as planned.

Who is even sharing vital information with the hundreds of players that are supposed to be the strength-in-numbers bedrock of the union, or any union? Smith? He’s busy in the boardroom. Kevin Mawae? His standing was stronger when he was, you know, playing. Mike Vrabel was a respected representative at the national level, but he bailed for a coaching gig at Ohio State.

Do players even want to know what’s really going on? Many that we hear from seem to lack that kind of intellectual curiosity, even with their livelihoods at stake.

Lockouts favor owners. The guys who sign the checks initiate the stoppage when they see a good chance to improve their bottom line.

The players would have been happy to keep the status quo, but that’s not happening. When a deal gets done, there will be plenty of smiles and even more spin, almost all of that needed by Smith.

What’s left to see is not if the owners emerge with a win, but merely the margin.

Dan Bernstein

Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s blogs here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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