Will NFL, players realize fans' power?
The weather forecast for Saturday in San Francisco is 60 degrees, in Boston 53 and partly cloudy. The NHL and NBA are grinding toward their seasons' end and the playoffs, with baseball (unless you hail from Pittsburgh or Kansas City) full of spring possibilities. In Japan, a disaster beyond comprehension has death tolls anticipated to reach the thousands. The United States, barely able to pay its bills at home, heaven help us, might put fighter planes in the skies over Libya.
Events large and small, important and not so will go on Saturday morning. Life will go on, happily for some, in the wake of tragedy for others. In sports, the ball will keep bouncing.
For weeks, in discussing the original March 3 expiration of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, we've used words like deadline (stretched as it was to this week) and Armageddon, but they are not the right words. The business of the National Football League is currently at an impasse, but the game of football is very much alive. The sport itself literally hasn't gone anywhere. If you love football, go into the garage or a sporting goods store and buy one. Take the ball and throw it with your kids. Play Madden. Get really muddy by playing pick up ball with your friends. Be Tom Brady.
The business of the game is shut down, but fans have lost nothing while gaining something very important: You've learned that those who own the teams, the commissioner who runs the league and, to a far lesser extent, the players who run the routes, sack the quarterbacks and score the touchdowns have so little perspective that they believe their inability to divide $9 billion is, in the real world, important. We all know better.
The faster the owners and players realize the world can function perfectly well without a National Football League, the faster the two sides will realize just how good life is for both. The faster each regains respect for the people who buy the tickets, buy the jerseys and create the coveted ratings, the faster this labor strife will be over -- and forgotten. After all, by being willing to spend money on football religiously, you the fans are the ones who give the generally unmarketable skill of throwing a football 60 yards on a line any value at all.
Fans may lose some NFL games, but what you've really gained is power.
The question today, as the NFL calls its players irresponsible and as the players head to the courts seeking some form of outside authority to hold the league accountable, is what will the fans do with this power? Will they take the old, tired positions and blame the players, calling them greedy for wanting to be a true business partner? Will they take the "shut up and play" position we've seen so many times during previous labor impasses across American sports? Saying players should be grateful to be paid millions for playing a kid's game is, at its worst, an unsophisticated position, for professional sports is not a kid's game. Kid's games don't charge $75 to park, or $1,200 per ticket to attend the championship game. Kid's games don't generate $9 billion in revenue.
It is this expectation of unsophistication that at least in part emboldens owners to force labor unrest onto the public, for they believe the fans' wrath will always be levied worse against the players. And they have often been correct in this assumption.
The truth is far more complicated and fans have an opportunity to use their power both by learning complicated financial issues and changing how they view the relationship between the player and the owners. Allowances are made for ownership because they wear the suits. They've earned their money in ways the public tends to respect -- in business, through family -- instead of by combining wonderful genes with admirable dedication.
The public tends to blame the player because it believes the cadre of ownership has more legitimate skills than simply being able to run really fast. Fans think that Robert Kraft is taking more of a risk (because he has the money) than, say, Peyton Manning.
But today, following the Year of the Concussion, the suicides of Andre Waters and Dave Duerson, the startling and disturbing medical evidence that the sport is contributing to depression, and the statistics that NFL offensive linemen live 18 years less than the average American male, who would suggest that players risk less?
Perhaps the players will take the brunt of the public's rage over the game being shut down because playing football is 100 percent voluntary, and thus no one should weep if Matt Light doesn't see his 80th birthday because he chose not to by playing football, but such a viewpoint absolves the NFL of its responsibilities that come with making money off of play that results in such gruesome facts.
In the past, labor unrest has made both fans' and media members' eyes glaze over, not unlike studying for a loathsome final exam. No one wants their fun and games interfered with, and thus understanding of the issues is not high on anyone's list.
But the NFL and its players had been heading in this direction for some time, perhaps for the 24 years since the last work stoppage. The players and the union have been long ridiculed for not protecting their long-term interests. The players play the most dangerous game with the shortest career life with the fewest guarantees.
Ownership has exploited the players' past lack of solidarity and has responded by attempting to muscle them into playing more games for less overall revenue, even as the game faces direct scrutiny for being less safe and more violent than ever. It has forced, as did baseball before it, a labor stoppage by refusing to open its books while claiming losses it hasn't supported statistically. These losses, it should be remembered were supposed to be mitigated by a salary cap, revenue sharing and largely nonguaranteed contracts.
The fan has the power to be a voice in this negotiation, but it is a voice that will only be heard if fans redirect their fervor and spending, because the only message sports leagues understand is the message that the public will pay to watch something else.
That would get everyone's attention. Football doesn't need the NFL to exist, nor do football fans. It just seems that way. There is college football. There is high school football. There is touch football. There are basketball and baseball. There is also, through strife, the opportunity for new ideas -- perhaps a new league, with new partnerships and new leadership with new history without any of the old baggage -- that could spur these two sides that seem to believe in their own inherent invincibility to settle differences.
The real shame would be if fans just wait for the storm to pass and continue with business as usual without reminding both sides that the business of caring is what makes any of this important. The fans who are more watchers than doers can break out the old DVD of Jackie Smith dropping a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XIII, or of John Taylor scoring one against the Bengals. The imagination is where the game really lives, especially because it is only March, and not September.
But should the leaves begin to change and labor is still an issue, the fans will have more power than ever: The power to turn the channel to something else.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.
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