Players respond to league’s ‘PR blitz’

League owners have locked out players, but both sides in pro football’s labor fight are locked and loaded, firing salvos about who is to blame for the breakdown of talks.

The sniping continued Monday — after a weekend of statements from team owners blaming the players for pushing away from the negotiating table — when the just-decertified NFL Players Association conducted a media conference call to tell its side of the story, and to re-emphasize it saw a lockout coming all along.

“We’re not going to allow the league to let 36 hours of a media PR blitz erase what has been planned and prepared for almost three years now,” said George Atallah, spokesman for the NFLPA, which dissolved as a union Friday and is a trade association.

NFL officials, in turn, argue the union has intended for two years to decertify (barring an agreement in the interim) and always intended to drag this fight into the federal courts. A union is not allowed to decertify simply to gain leverage in bargaining.

Meanwhile, there were developments on several fronts.

The NFLPA is attempting to discourage top prospects from attending next month’s draft, according to an ESPN report citing “multiple league sources.” That would alter the time-honored tradition of the early picks walking on stage, shaking the hand of commissioner Roger Goodell and sporting the hat and jersey of the player’s new team. Even though a lockout is in effect, there will be a 2011 draft.

The NFLPA declined to comment on the report, whereas league spokesman Greg Aiello said, “We plan to invite the 15 to 20 top prospects and their families to New York as we normally do for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. And, as always, it is the decision of the players and their families as to whether they attend.”

An April 6 hearing date has been set for the antitrust lawsuit a group of players has filed against the league.

NFLPA President Kevin Mawae, a former Seahawk, called the assertion the players walked away from negotiations “a complete fabrication and a lie.” The NFL and the union participated in 17 days of talks at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, twice extending the deadline of the collective-bargaining agreement.

Jeff Pash, the league’s lead labor negotiator, said owners proposed a 10-year CBA to players last week.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said players have slammed the door on the concept of the regular season going from 16 to 18 games.

“I’m going to tell you right now that 18 games is not going to happen through the NFL Players Association,” Brees said. “We cannot justify it for the safety and health of our players.”