OK, so the headline is a bit of hyperbole. (Me? Hyperbolic? Say it ain’t so!) But Steelers-Packers looks more and more like the last NFL game before the owners lock out their players, and there’s a chance a lockout could last a while.
My default position has been that the NFL is too smart to fall into a long-term work stoppage. (Yes, I was around in 1982, when half the season was lost to a players’ strike, and again in 1987, when the workers again walked out and three regrettable games using replacements were staged.) Baseball has since lost a World Series and the NBA half a season and the NHL a whole season, and pro football has sailed blissfully onward. But the bliss is about to end.
I’m not sure this NFL commissioner and these owners are as smart as those we’d come to know. History lesson: The NFL got huge because Pete Rozelle convinced his owners they were partners first and competitors second and that any TV contracts must be league contracts. (This as opposed to baseball, where each franchise works out its local TV deal for itself, which is why the Yankees mint money and the Pirates haven’t had a winning season since Sid Bream slid.)
Rozelle was the smartest commissioner in the history of sports — apologies to David Stern — and was succeeded by Paul Tagliabue, himself no dummy. But Roger Goodell is the new sheriff, and he seems markedly less clever.
In an excellent Lockout Primer, Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk suggests the NFL suffers from a lack of gravitas, which is another way of saying: Too many owners want to be like Jerry Jones. The owners of yore, schooled and herded by Rozelle, knew that to miss games was bad for business. It was the players who went on strike in 1982 and again in 1987, and both times they came back to work without having gained what they wanted. The players were simply losing too much money not playing. It will take a while before these owners lose enough money to hurt.
These owners want, shock of shocks, to share less revenue. (Building your own stadium is hard, Jerry Jones wants us to know.) And the owners do have leverage: They’re rich already; they don’t have to depend on weekly checks the way players do. When regular-season games start being lost, it’s going to hurt the players more than the owners. And the side suffering more is the side apt to surrender.
To answer a question often raised: There will be a draft even if there’s a lockout. But, as Peter King of SI.com has noted, there might not be any free agency if this lockout lasts into September. And right now, I’d guess it will last at least that long. Because I have no faith in Goodell to control his owners.
Goodell just announced he would cut his salary from $10 million to $1 if there’s a work stoppage. It’s another in a series of Grand Goodell Gestures, but this commissioner is better at gesturing than he is at commissioning. And really, wouldn’t the better course be to say, “If I can stave off a lockout, my salary gets doubled”?
For the first time, the players seem to be hitting the right notes. (Antonio Cromartie’s rant notwithstanding.) They’re positioning themselves as victims, not instigators. The NFL Players Association has even launched a Web site — NFLLockout.com — to take its case to the people. And that’s another key difference: If the players are convinced they’ve been wronged, they might actually stick together this time.
A guess: This Super Bowl won’t be the last pro football game we ever see, but it will be the last we see until October.
By Mark Bradley