by Howard Balzer

Why does the theme song from the classic movie "The Sting" keep playing in my head? It's simple. We were all played by the NFL Thursday night in a setup designed to make NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith come out smelling like a rose when he receives the final concessions needed to close the agreement between the NFL and the players and allow football business to begin again.
Let me explain.
To say that Thursday was a bizarre day in the NFL would be a massive understatement.
When the day began and as it progressed, it was learned that the major issue separating each side was the recertification of the NFLPA as a union.
Players insisted that could take some time, and that it would be necessary for each player to sign a card electing to be in the union. They wanted the owners to lift the lockout while the recertification was accomplished. After all, the players just want to play football, right?
Owners countered that it could be done electronically and said there would be no end to the lockout until the players were a union again and the settlement of the lawsuit became a collective bargaining agreement.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith seemed to be clearly tweaking the owners when he briefly addressed the media early in the afternoon.
You see, the league has had this love-hate relationship with the union for a long time. In 1993, they demanded the players recertify after the antitrust suit case was won in court by the players, then denied this offseason they had made such demands.
That, of course, came after the league refused to recognize the union's decertification in March, calling it a "sham." Yet, now they accept it, and want almost instant recertification.
With a seeming twinkle in his eye Thursday, Smith noted how the NFL questioned whether "we were a real union," and even poked fun at the "experts on recertification" at the NFL Network.
Smith said, "The decision to decertify (in March) was important because we were a real union. ... Every time an employee makes that decision about whether he wants to be part of a union, it's something that is serious, significant and should be done in a very sober way."
Arizona kicker Jay Feely, tweeting on the recertification issue, said, "In March, NFL said NFLPA shld not be able to instantaneously disband, now they are arguing shd be able to reform in a blink."
It was obvious Smith was sending a message that he and the players wanted recertification done at the players' pace, not by some forced deadline set by the league.
It's also a sure thing that Smith communicated exactly that in an hour-long conversation with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that took place no more than an hour before the owners voted on the new agreement and miraculously produced an eight-page release that spelled out the key terms of the agreement and included a specific timeline for the start of league business.
As everyone breathlessly reacted to the show put on by the NFL, it was as if everyone forgot what had preceded it only minutes before.
Goodell and the NFL knew there was no way the players would accept the provision in the press release that said the league year would begin next Wednesday (July 27) as long as the union had been recertified.
It sure sounded good, though. After all, the league was lifting the lockout, allowing players to voluntarily report to their teams for training, conditioning and classroom instruction on Saturday, and also permitting the signing of draft picks, undrafted free agents (Sunday) and the re-signing of their own free agents.
But, the official league year with player movement, and training camp, wouldn't begin until recertification as a union.
Almost instantly, enraged players went on Twitter claiming the NFL was forcing the agreement down their throats. The NFLPA had a two-hour conference call between the executive committee and player reps. Afterward, players like Buffalo Bills safety and player rep George Wilson explained that the players couldn't vote because they hadn't even seen the league's proposal. Yet, then came the contradiction that the league had slipped in things that weren't there before.
Well, if they hadn't seen the proposal, how would they know what supposedly had been slipped in?
Yes, The Sting was on. And while ESPN and The NFL Network talked all night about how confused they all were, hardly anything was said about the terms of the deal.
*That NFL teams will have to spend actual cash to 99 percent of the cap in the first two years of the agreement.
*That the players' share of revenue must average at least 47 percent for the 10 years of the agreement and that players will share 55 percent of national media revenue, 45 percent of NFL Ventures revenue, and 40 percent of local club revenue.
*That the offseason programs would be reduced by five weeks and OTAs cut from 14 to 10. In addition, there would be limits to on-field practice time and contact; limiting full-contact practices in the preseason and regular season; and increasing the number of days off for players.
*That there would be enhanced injury protection of up to $1 million of a player's salary for the year after an injury and up to $500,000 in the second year after an injury.
*That the minimum salary for first-year players immediately increases from $320,000 to $375,000 along with the same $55,000 increase for second-year players and up. Those minimums would then rise $15,000 each year.
Wonder which of those terms, if any, were slipped in under the players' noses.
There was also some chatter that the players were upset that the owners also on Thursday agreed to a new supplemental revenue sharing plan that accounts for differences in local revenue for teams. Supposedly, the players wanted there to be a guarantee that the money shared would be used on player spending. That makes no logical sense.
By terms of the agreement, the players receive 40 percent of all local revenue. The owners get 60 percent, and how they choose to share that part of the pie has nothing to do with the players.
The new plan helps lower-revenue teams deal with the minimum cash expenditures mandated by the new agreement. League counsel Jeff Pash explained, "It addresses more of the clubs that are on top of the revenue scale. It will be a pro rata type of funding rather than what we had in the old system where if you ranked in a certain area you would pay this much, this much and this much. It's more finely tailored to individual clubs.
"In the old system, you were eligible if you had player costs that were greater to or equal to 65 percent of your revenue. Here, that's going to go down to 63 percent beginning in 2013. There's greater sharing, if you will, in that respect and clubs will have greater opportunities to narrow the disparities."
Yes, there are other unresolved issues relating to league and club discipline, drug testing and worker's compensation. But none of those can be finalized until the players are a union.
Let's be real here. It's unthinkable that either side will allow those issues, coupled with the recertification, to prevent a deal from happening or have it be delayed whereby significant revenue would be lost.
Goodell and Smith probably had a chuckle Thursday night when they likely talked about how well this was choreographed while everyone else was deflected from what was really going on.
Smith will be a hero when the recertification timeline is adjusted with perhaps some other tweaks and the players sign off on the deal.
The players wanted to sign their cards once they begin reporting for training camp. That could still happen. After all, when Pash was asked if camps could open and the league year start prior to recertification, he didn't rule it out, saying only that it was "unlikely."
Goodell will have done his part brokering what is believed to be the longest labor agreement in the history of professional sports leagues.
Cue football talk. Finally.