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NFL Lockout - Say It Ain't So

By Alex Wunrow

It's 7 a.m. on what is supposed to be opening night at Lambeau Field, and America is still holding its breath.

An autumn wind kicks up a lonely pile of recently deceased leaves, but the brisk air doesn’t feel the same. What was once a legendary signifier of the triumphant return of professional football, now serves as a reminder that colder days lie ahead.

America is currently being faced with a terrifying reality: if on April 6th the NFLPA and the Owners have not reached a new collective bargaining agreement, the feared lack of professional football come autumn could become a stark reality.

Until recently, my philosophy in regards to the NFL Lockout has been this: hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil. Whenever a lockout-related article would slide through my Twitter, I quickly looked the other way. Whenever the labor dispute would come on SportsCenter, I turned it off. And whenever anyone would try to have a casual conversation about the potential of a lockout, I promptly changed the subject.

These things were initially done out of apathy-- the NFL is the most powerful entertainment industry in America-- so why in the world would they let a work stoppage happen?

Then, recently, these practices were carried out through fear. But as I’ve come to realize, now is not the time to ignore the lockout, it’s time to explore it.

Now, imagine for a minute a world without the NFL.

Some of you may imagine some obscene post-apocalyptic-alternate-universe, but me, I see something a little different.

I see a world where record levels of greed and corruption actually blow up in the bad guys’ faces, a world where commissioner Roger Goodell cannot pretend to care about players’ safety and then turn around and push for more regular season games.

A world where people remember that the NHL has done this before. Can you imagine, the league bearing through a lockout, only to find out that opening night 2012 is actually airing on Versus?

In this world, we find ourselves asking one question: how did we get here?

It all started back in 1994 when the league initially introduced a ‘hard salary cap.’ At the time, the cap was $34.6 million. A glaring contrast to the 2009--the last year with a CBA--cap of $128 million.

This number may seem inflated, but the prosperity of the league has grown exponentially since then. The NFL dominates the professional sports landscape, and they have the revenue to prove it.  Or do they?

Which brings us to the real problem: how can an estimated $55 billion be fairly distributed? There is no dispute that the NFL is financially strong. In fact, each of the 32 NFL teams ranks in the top 35 most valuable sports franchises in America. It’s no coincidence that even the least valuable NFL franchise is still worth more than the NBA’s top moneymaker.

But how well are these teams doing, really?

With the exception of the publicly owned Green Bay Packers, who are required by law to disclose all financial information, the NFL will not divulge the exactly what the players have asked for. They have given them the numbers they are legally required to give, but nothing more. The players want financial transparency, and the team owners want none of it. The funny thing is, the owners seemingly have the most to gain with transparency.

If the facts were to show that the owners were not bringing in the revenue that everyone assumes, then the players would lose leverage. Because, really, in what world can the laborers ask the ownership group for a 60-40 split of all revenue? It goes against all modern business principles, but the players know that. This is a high-stakes poker game. The owners know that the vast majority of players actually live paycheck-to-paycheck, and the players understand just how much these games are worth to the owners--billions.

Now, you may find the idea of professional football players living paycheck-to-paycheck to be absolutely ridiculous-- which it is. However, insanity aside, this is a painful reality. Most players do not come from money, which makes it difficult for them to manage their budget while suddenly making three million dollars annually.

And then, all of a sudden, the paychecks stop coming in, and that new Armani suit starts to feel a little tight, and before you know it, the lockout has been going on for six months, and the same player that was spending like the world was ending is actually praying for the end times.

If the owners want to, they can continue to lockout the players as long as they desire. The only thing keeping them from doing this is the massive loss of profit. But, again, the owners can survive this lockout.

The players cannot quite say the same thing, and the owners are painfully aware of this. However, what helps the players in this scenario is that the owners are all top-notch businessmen whose stomachs churn at the thought of 11 figure profit losses. Now, don’t confuse a billion dollar loss of profit with losing money, because it is not. It is simply a lost shot at more money. A lot more money.  

But does any of this matter?

Both sides have revealed themselves as unwilling to compromise.  Regardless of how much money each side feels they deserve, the pie is still so big that it almost seems moot. Because, in reality, if there is somehow no football come September, the only people who will really suffer are the people who made both the owners and players rich: the fans.

This is the overwhelming issue. As the owners continue to jack up ticket prices and hold communities hostage-- forcing the taxpayers to bankroll their desire for new ‘state-of-the-art’ billion dollar ‘entertainment expos’--we still throw money at them without blinking.

And after we paint our bodies, spend countless hours getting to and from these mammoth arenas, and rise to our feet when the moment calls, the owners still have the gall to threaten a year without football just so they can sleep easy at night knowing that their personal profit margins are safe for another day.

But the blame cannot go to one party alone, because the mess is too big to have been created by a single culprit. The players are over-reaching; they want the owners to know that they are the reason for the prosperity and want to be reimbursed accordingly. But they are still wrong. Without the owners handling the major financial moves (i.e. Television Contracts, Corporate Sponsors, etc.) the league would not be nearly as financially viable as it currently is.

And without both sides realizing how truly dependent they are upon each other, the lockout will continue--without any reasonable time frame for its conclusion.

But hopefully this is not how it ends.  Hopefully we do not have to face empty autumn Sundays. Hopefully the Owners and NFLPA get it.  And hopefully they understand that what this all comes down to is one side receiving a lot of money and one side receiving a little bit more money. And hopefully, we won’t have to watch baseball in October.