NFL Begins College Draft

The National Football League began its annual college draft Thursday night, in the same week it filed a request to lock its players out over a dispute about pay. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis tells Michele Norris about draft highlights, lowlights — and where the owners and players are in their continuing litigation.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

While the National Football League is still trying to lock out its current players, they're also drafting new ones. Last night, the NFL held the first round of its annual college draft.

When Commissioner Roger Goodell walked onto the stage at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan, he was serenaded with this welcome.

Unidentified Announcer: NFL Commissioner Robert Goodell.

(Soundbite of booing)

Mr. ROGER GOODELL (Commissioner, National Football League): I hear you.

NORRIS: Ouch, those boos were prompted by an off-season dominated by a labor battle between the NFLs club owners and players. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays. Stefan, I'm not going to boo for you. I'm happy that you're here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Maybe you could explain where we are in the tug of war between owners and players.

STEFAN FATSIS: Yeah, well, last month, the talks stalled on a new collective bargaining about how to divvy up the $9 billion in revenue that the NFL generates.

The players then decertified their union, sued the owners on antitrust grounds. The owners in response locked the players out, and that brought all league business to a halt.

On Monday, a federal judge in Minneapolis ruled against the NFL, issued an injunction ending the lockout. The NFL requested a stay of the ruling. The judge denied it on Wednesday. And now the NFL has requested a stay from the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. They're hoping thats a friendlier venue.

NORRIS: So where does all this legal maneuvering leave the sport right now?

FATSIS: In a weird place. After the ruling on Monday, some players tried to return to work. Most were allowed inside team offices. All but one, though, were denied use of workout facilities.

Players on one team, Tennessee Titans, said were turned away by armed security guards, which seemed a little extreme to me. Last night, though, the league announced a gradual restart. So this morning, players showed up for work, they attended meetings, lifted weights, received playbooks.

Some teams scheduled off-season workouts and rookie camps. But this could again all come to a halt again depending on what happens in appeals court.

NORRIS: And all of this was happening during the week of the draft, when the NFL receives the most media and fan attention of its off-season, maybe not the best timing for the NFL.

FATSIS: Yeah, not at all. I mean, it was definitely the most awkward draft ever. First you had that booing. Fans also were shouting: We want football, we want football. And Goodell only managed to quiet their boos with a request for a moment of silence for the tornado victims.

The top incoming players, though, did attend the draft, and the weirdest scene had to be when the number two pick, a linebacker from Texas A&M named Von Miller, who was chosen by the Denver Broncos, he walked out on the stage and embraced Goodell. And that was weird because Miller is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the league. So it was plaintiff hugging defendant.

NORRIS: Now, you mention that Miller was the second pick. The first pick was Cam Newton, the controversial quarterback from the collegiate champion, Auburn, again from the state that was socked by that tornado. Where is he going?

FATSIS: He's going to the Carolina Panthers. None of NFL pundits and experts seemed convinced that Newton is a guaranteed star. In any case, consider that less than three years ago, Cam Newton was a backup to Tim Tebow at the University of Florida. He left there after an arrest. He played at a tiny junior college, and then he had a breakout year at Auburn that was dogged by recruiting violations. It has been a long strange trip to number one for this kid.

NORRIS: So some awkwardness, some controversy. Could you give us a couple more highlights from yesterdays first round of the draft?

FATSIS: Yeah, sure. Four quarterbacks taken in top 12 picks, none considered sure thing. No running back was taken until 28th pick, and that was the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram of Alabama. He went to New Orleans. That is the latest a running back has been taken in the draft since 1962.

And the New York Giants with the 19th pick took Prince Amukamara, a cornerback from University of Nebraska, and he is named Prince because he descends from royal bloodlines in Nigeria. And that led to my favorite line of the night from Rich Eisen(ph) on the NFL Network commenting on the Giants owner. He said John Mara has a Amukamara now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Thank you, Stefan. Have a good weekend.

FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis talks to us on Fridays about sports and the business of sports. He's also the author of "A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter plays in the NFL."

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