BRADENTON, Fla. -- Finally it was time for fun and games. After two days of serious closed-door discussions about what it takes to succeed on and off the field, the 155 first-year players participating in the NFLPA-organized "The Business of Football: Rookie Edition" got a chance to let loose.
They gathered on the outskirts of IMG Academies' 450-acre complex and put kids from the local YMCA through various football drills. At times it was hard to tell who enjoyed themselves more. There were enough smiles and high fives to last the summer.
The two-hour get-together was a nice way to end the two-day event, but it was clear even amid the laughter and playing that the messages of the previous 1 1/2 days resonated with the players as they prepared to head back to their hometowns.
"Going into this event I thought I knew a lot, and then you go through these couple of days and you realize there's a lot you have to learn," said Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. "If I hadn't have had this event, I think I would have missed out on a great deal. We heard from so many good speakers, and there are so many little things that I picked up this week that will carry me through my career."
The NFLPA resuscitated the event after the NFL announced last spring it would cancel it because of labor uncertainty and logistical concerns. The former players union picked up the slack and expanded the symposium to include information about not only finances and personal responsibility, but also ways to make their "money-makers" -- their bodies -- work for them.
"Traditionally when we look at the business of football, we think from the financial perspective and how they're going to manage the money, and the people all around them," says Trevor Moawad, IMG's director of performance and mental conditioning. "What we bring to the process is that look at the total athlete, and that the business of sport is how you take care of your body, how you can communicate with your teammates, why the things that you put in your body are important, why it's critical to understand what goes into correctly warming up and cooling down your body. Ultimately, [their] body is their money-maker; and as important as it is to manage all the peripheral things, the most important thing is to manage how they take care of themselves. What we've found is that the top players have a tremendous aptitude and are able to get to the league with this ability, but they're not able to stay in the league because they don't have the habits that will sustain them."
One hundred fifty-five players heard the messages, including 23 of the 32 players drafted in the first round and eight of the first 10 picks. The only top 10 picks not to make it were Tennessee's Jake Locker, who is getting married Sunday, and Atlanta's Julio Jones (it was unclear why he was absent, though the event was voluntary).
The NFLPA arranged for sponsorships and picked up lodging and travel costs for the players, who participated in small-group workshops and sat in on ballroom sessions with guest speakers such as former Lions defensive tackle Luther Ellis and ex-Giants receiver Plaxico Burress. Ellis, who made nearly $12 million in his career, told of bad business deals, which resulted in him filing for bankruptcy, and Burress spoke frankly and candidly about losing $12 million and two years of his life behind bars for violating New York's guns laws.
What the rookies didn't learn was whether a resolution to the owner-imposed lockout was imminent. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith spoke to the rookies in the morning and told them that they couldn't discuss specifics of negotiations per a court gag order. But both said they were working hard to get a deal done.
Meantime, there was an awkward moment later in the morning when Goodell and Smith toured IMG's grounds. The Tampa Bay Bucs are holding a player-organized minicamp on the grounds this week, and when some veterans heard Goodell was coming by the weight room, they left before he arrived. Several told SI.com that they did not want to see or hear from Goodell.
Second-year defensive lineman Gerald McCoy greeted Goodell with a big hug and a smile, but he said that should not be construed as a sign of weakness from the players' position.
"I'm an optimistic person, so I believe a deal is going to get done," McCoy said. "But all of us players stand as one. We're strong. This is a tight group, and we're going to continue to stand our ground until there's a fair deal for both sides."
In the meantime, there remains the question of who will run the symposium in future years. It was the league's baby until this year, yet NFLPA vice president George Atallah was coy when asked whether the former union would want to run future events.
Said Atallah: "We will continue to take the lead on player education." Pressed on the matter, he smiled and said: "We will continue to take the lead on player education."
The lesson this week: Football is a business and the players need to approach it as such.