The National Football League has one of the best things going in the history of team sports. Its owners and players are on the verge of blowing it entirely, leaving the fans in the lurch. The game should belong to the fans who pay for it. If the owners and players ruin the coming season, may a serious pox be on both their houses.
How stupid must both sides be to even come close to risking their pot of gold and their pre-eminent place in the affections of the American public. How short-sighted. How incredibly unimaginative with solutions. And how pathetically greedy.
As they say in bridge, let’s review the bidding. Under the old system that is expiring on March 4, the teams operated on the level playing field set by an ingenious and workable salary cap. League balance is excellent. And, despite the literally unbelievable — not at all believable — claims of some owners, everybody prospers unless they ware utterly incompetent. Eight billion dollars in revenue allows lots of prospering.
Owners, addicted to taxpayer-financed stadiums and outlandish ticket prices like junkies on a diet of both crack and meth, are upset because the current system sets aside 60 percent of revenue to be dispersed among the players. They want to backtrack on that percentage. Cry me five rivers and a large-sized lake.
In all my years as a huge sports fan, longtime New Orleans Saints season ticket holder, sports writer (yes, that’s how I got my start), and columnist, I never have supported the players in a sports strike. Nobody deserves the sort of money, for instance, that baseball players get for running around on manicured, deep-green fields. But this — this is different. The violence of professional football is almost unimaginable. The careers are short, but the cumulative injuries are forever. If most owners are making profits — which they certainly are — under today’s 60-40 split of an $8 billion pot, then there’s no reason to monkey with that overall breakdown. The players, after all, aren’t demanding more, but just to keep what they have.
Worse, the same owners who feign serious concern about player health are promoting the unbelievably moronic idea of turning a 16-game regular season into an 18-game season. Don’t they know there are limits to the stresses the human body can endure? Don’t they know that the fans don’t want to see their favorite players get hurt and have their careers cut short? Commissioner Roger Goodell makes the ludicrous claim that the 18-game proposal is all for the fans, to save fans the annoyance of four full pre-season games. Yeah, right — as if the league ever really cared anything about the fans except what is in their wallets or allowed by their credit cards. Fans endure what the Washington Post‘s Sally Jenkins called “a splitting headache and sour stomach from the $19 margaritas and the $12 wine and the $10 beers and the rest of the fiscal insanity.” That’s not to mention the obnoxiousness of the only-for-premium NFL Network, which makes some of the league’s biggest games unviewable by a huge swath of the public. Fans are near the breaking point already. What we need isn’t more bells and whistles; what we need is a stop to the cost spiral.
Yet here the owners are threatening a lockout. Huh? Rather than wait to see if players strike, the owners would lock out the very people who do the actual grunt work, the people without whose phenomenal skills these owners would be rich nobodies with only their bank accounts to feed their egos. (Then again, if there’s no NFL season, maybe more owners can get their names in the papers by suing alternative weeklies because of hurt feelings over a devil illustration. Dan Snyder could show them all how to star in their own movies and call it The Anti-Social Network.) King Solomon couldn’t collect his riches without his mine workers, and the owners don’t actually own any teams if the teams have no players to generate the gold. Or, to change metaphors, locking out the players makes as much sense as it would for an astronaut to turn off his own oxygen suit before a space-walk.
On the other hand, the players are acting like spoiled brats as well. Rather than hiring as their union’s executive director somebody who actually has proved that he cares about the game, they hired a big-money lawyer whose idea of how to avoid a lost season isn’t to start negotiating months in advance, but instead to try to use his connections with Eric “The Pardoner” Holder and the rest of the Obama administration in order to get politicians to ride to the players’ rescue. The threat is to “decertify” the union and then ask Congress or the courts to eliminate the league’s super-valuable anti-trust exemption. But it is that very exemption that helps the league do all the things — revenue sharing, salary caps, joint marketing agreements, etc. — that keep the playing field level enough for every fan to have reason to hope his team can one day win a Super Bowl. The anti-trust exemption is what allowed the league to thrive and become pre-eminent. Eliminating the exemption would be like the players cutting off their own versions of Brett Favre’s favorite cell-phone-seduction-tool in order to spite their jock straps. (These guys bust their noses all the time and don’t mind spiting or rearranging their faces, but see how they like it when their league gets ruined enough that their groupies decide to throw themselves at golfers instead.) What’s needed here isn’t trial-lawyer brinksmanship — a testosterone-fest for paper-pushers — but steady, persistent reason and common sense.
There is no reason, none on Earth, why the two sides can’t find a solution. There’s plenty of money to go around.
That said, the NFL right now really is great entertainment. The last five years have had superb season climaxes. First was the long-awaited triumph of pro’s pro Peyton Manning and nice-guy coach Tony Dungy. The next year featured the first Super Bowl featuring a team unbeaten after 18 games, the amazing possibility of back-to-back championships by quarterback brothers, the most amazing single catch (ball-to-helmet) in NFL history, and the greatest upset since Joe Willie prepared with “two beers and a broad.” The year after that featured another nail-biter, won by another all-world catch (Santonio Holmes dancing in-bounds in the end zone), in a game featuring two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Then came the Saints’ marching in after 43 years, first winning in overtime against a legend from a New Orleans exurb (Favre’s Kiln, Miss., is less than an hour from the French Quarter), then in the match-up against real local-boy Peyton, the son of the single most beloved player in the team’s first four decades. Finally, this year, another nail-biter, with the Lombardi-haunted Packers first dispatching the 80-year rival Bears before edging out the AFC’s single most storied franchise in a game not decided until the last minute.
This is the sort of sporting spectacle worth saving. It is why true fans should not just curse the greed on both sides of this labor dispute, but instead wish for constructive solutions — and even propose them. In Part Two, tomorrow, I’ll put forth my own ideas. But for now, in the spirit of Starrs fallen forward into frozen end-zones, let’s just say that the way to the winning score for both sides is just to push forward, knowing that the will of Lombardi insists the task is doable.