Players for four NFL teams have already taken a key step in their looming fight with the league over pay -- a fight that may include a lockout next year.
Carl Francis, a spokesman for the NFL Players Association, confirmed in an e-mail to The Associated Press on Friday that Indianapolis, Dallas, New Orleans and Philadelphia have all voted unanimously to decertify the union. He said union leaders were still collecting voting cards from other teams.
Decertification would strip the union of its collective bargaining rights on behalf of the players, so the move might seem counter-intuitive. But since antitrust laws exempt NFL owners from being sued by unions that are negotiating CBAs, decertification would in essence eliminate the union and allow players to sue the NFL in the event of a lockout -- giving them potential leverage in their dispute with the owners.
Colts center Jeff Saturday said the Indy vote took place Wednesday and that he expects the other 31 teams to do the same thing -- unanimously.
"When it's explained why you're doing it, I don't think anyone would vote against it," he said.
League officials declined to comment.
No immediate action is expected by the NFLPA, but voting now will help the union avoid the logistical nightmare of tracking down players for voting cards and signatures during the offseason. The collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the union expires in March.
Players have been told that if the union does not decertify before the CBA ends, the NFLPA would have to wait six months to sue the league.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith is expected to meet with each team over the next few weeks. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell also answered questions from Colts players during a training camp meeting last month.
It's not the first time this has happened.
The NFLPA was decertified in 1989, two years after a failed players' strike. It returned as a union in 1993, when a contract was reached with the league that provided for free agency. That landmark CBA was renewed or restructured several times since 1993, including in 2006. The owners opted out of that deal two years ago.
The players currently get 59.6 percent of designated NFL revenues, a number agreed to in the 2006 CBA. The owners say that's too much, arguing that they have huge debts for building stadiums and starting up the NFL Network and other ventures, making it impossible to be profitable.
The NFL generates nearly $8 billion in revenues annually, with about $1 billion going to operating expenses. The owners get about 40 percent of the rest, but they want about $1.3 billion more before the players get their cut, and they'd like two more regular-season games to get more money out of the networks for everyone.
Players have said they won't take anything that amounts to a pay cut. Smith has been warning players since he took office in early 2009 to put aside money in case of a work stoppage.