Commentary

NFL lockout: Will get fooled again

Is it too much to ask that management and labor at least give lip service to the fans?

Originally Published: March 7, 2011
By Patrick Hruby | Special to ESPN.com

Know why the NFL's current labor-management wrangling seems so odious? Think of it like this: You're dating a girl. She's young and pretty. You're old and rich.

But it's not about the money.

OK, sure, maybe you pay her rent. And foot the bill for her nose jobs. Sometimes, the two of you hop on your private jet and head to Paris -- you know, to find something for her to wear at dinner. Other times, you like to chill out and watch the sunset. Over the Aegean Sea. From the helipad of your yacht.

But really, it's not about the money.

No, what you have is something deeper. Something special. She laughs at your jokes. Nods attentively at your stories. Tickles your paunch and rubs your bald spot. Yours is a true romance -- and just last week you told her so, prattling on about getting married, donating your fortune to charity and joining the Peace Corps, together, because all you need is each other, sharing your love with the world.

[+] EnlargeCowboys stadium
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe palace known as Cowboys Stadium wasn't built for us, but we're better off not dwelling on that.

Honey, she replied, that sounds so sweet. Now, aren't we supposed to go diamond necklace shopping today?

Anyway, professional football is the girl.

Collectively, we're the old man.

And deep down, this is why a potential lockout stinks. And stings.

Go ahead. Decry greed. Lament billionaires rasslin' with millionaires. Bemoan the possible loss of the upcoming season, a "Madden NFL 12" without accurate weekly roster updates, a fall filled with leaf blowing, gutter cleaning and all the other tedious chores currently kicked to the curb in favor of Sunday worship before the altar of the flat screen. (Speaking of curbs: Anticipate more visits to it to take out the trash.) Depressing prospects, to be sure. And that's without mentioning an end to fantasy football. (What else are we supposed to do at the office? Work?)

Still, these are mere annoyances.

Here's the thing about being a sports fan: Ultimately, we're paying customers. Financial enablers. Sugar daddies to the leagues and teams we irrationally adore. We open our wallets, time and again, happily and willingly. We shell out for tangible goods and delivered services, sure; our dollars buy a lot of tickets, PSLs and publicly funded stadiums. But mostly, we're in the market to buy a feeling. An emotional connection to other fans, to the athletes we love, to the teams we love to hate. We fork over our disposable income for a sense that what happens on the field has greater meaning than, say, buying tortilla chips at the grocery store -- that what matters is the winning and losing, as opposed to the signing bonuses and corporate balance sheets.

And in return?

[+] EnlargeGreed
AP Photo/Luc NovovitchThese baseball fans had it right as the 1994 MLB season was about to come to a premature close. Are football fans as savvy?

We simply ask that players and management feel the same. Or, at the very least, pretend to feel the same. Keep up appearances. Maintain a convincing, Oz-like illusion. Act as though pro football isn't just about the money.

Specifically, our money. And extracting more of it.

The looming lockout peels back that curtain. It's the equivalent of Penn and Teller walking us through the magic trick, pointing out the location of the trap door and hidden rabbit while giving us a spreadsheet of the gate receipts.

Go back to NFL labor tussle Public Enemy No. 1: greed. Thanks to fan expenditures and interest, the league's pantry is stocked with a bulging, $9 billion pie. The owners want a bigger slice of it. The players want to keep the heaping helping already on their plate. Both sides are acting purely in their financial self-interest.

Is that so unthinkable? So beyond the pale?

Not especially. Our political and financial systems are based on self-interest. As a society, we get greed. We dig it. It's in our cultural DNA. Tax cuts for us; slashed spending for the other guy. Buy now. Pay later. Paper over the difference by shipping T-bills to Chinese central banks. It's the American way! Gordon Gekko is a cinematic hero; Donald Trump is seriously contemplating a presidential run.

Seriously: If we were so scandalized by reckless, delusional greed, we wouldn't be hanging on Charlie Sheen's every tweet.

Sports, on the other hand, are supposed to be different. Quasi-sacred. Money is important, sure -- so long as it's made and spent in service of the great and mighty game. The game exists for us, and not simply to exploit our sentiments. Nobody begrudges Jerry Jones' selling standing-room-only stadium party passes and pocketing millions if the Cowboys build Xanadu-shaming high-def JumboTrons and overpay the likes of Roy Williams in a effort to amass victories. In both cases, Jones is giving us what we expect. What we need. The problem -- the icky, desultory feeling that we're being used -- comes when NFL owners and players act as if plundering as much loot as possible is the whole point of the exercise.

When, in other words, pro football's powers-that-be make like the BCS.

[+] EnlargeCohen
AP Photo/Alex BrandonMediator George Cohen has this week to see if he can finally bring these two greedy sides together.

For fans, this rankles. Deeply. It rankles the same way Albert Haynesworth's giant contract creates mass public angina while Tom Brady's giant contract does not. Brady appears to care about the same intangible goodies NFL Films has taught us to care about: teamwork, winning, heroics and glory. High-fives and community pride.

Sports as moral narrative.

Meanwhile, Haynesworth comes across as a guy who wouldn't even play football -- let alone get out of bed -- without receiving a tidy, guaranteed sum to do so.

Sports as soulless transaction.

The former makes us forget about the money altogether; the latter reminds us we're being na´ve, because it's always about the money.

And that reminder -- more than breaking the rules or failing to hustle or anything else -- is the ultimate sports sin.

Of course, owners and players alike are assuming we'll quickly forget, no matter how long the financial sparring drags on. In fact, they're banking on it. Our amnesia is the basis of their negotiating leverage. And given our love of football, our unquenchable thirst for the game, they're probably right. Though I'm not completely certain. After all, in so loudly and publicly placing money -- our money -- uber alles, both sides are breaking the first rule of being a successful trophy girlfriend: Never let a rich mark know you'd drop him in an instant for someone richer.

Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.

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