Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 21, 2011

With No End In Sight, The NFL Lockout Already Hurts

For football fans, it’s all a bit surreal. Tuesday evening the NFL rolled out its 2011 schedule, with all the usual fanfare. In cities across the country fans checked to see when their team’s most hated rival would be coming to town. In newspapers and on the web analysts highlighted key matchups throughout the season. Meanwhile one week from today the first round of the NFL draft will be broadcast in prime time from Radio City Music Hall. Already any number of self-appointed experts are into their third or fourth iteration of a mock draft, even as sportswriters debate the wisdom of Carolina taking Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first pick. Perhaps the surest sign of the NFL’s hold on American sports fans is the fact the draft has become a major television event. If last year’s pattern holds, more people will tune in to watch Commissioner Roger Goodell intone “Denver is on the clock” than will watch the competing contests of the NBA or NHL, two leagues that will actually be playing real live playoff games next week.

But no amount of off-season ritual can change the reality of the NFL’s current work stoppage. The schedule just released is one of games that may or may not be played. The college players whose names are called next week may or may not have training camps to attend. While owners and players alike all continue to say that the full season will be played, the two sides appear to remain very, very far apart.

Last week U.S. District Court Judge Susan Nelson ordered the parties back into mediation while she weighed the request of the players to issue an injunction stopping the lockout that the owners imposed just over five weeks ago. But after just four days of talks overseen by federal Judge Arthur Boylan, Wednesday brought the announcement that there would be no further negotiations until the middle of next month.

In the interim it’s widely expected that Nelson will order the injunction requested by the players, but likely stay her order to give the owners time to appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. There is also a hearing scheduled for May 12th in another federal courtroom where Judge David Doty will hear arguments about what damages should follow his decision that the owners improperly negotiated television contracts to ensure they would continue to be paid during a lockout.

All of the legal maneuvering is an effort by both sides to gain at least a perceived position of strength for when actual negotiations resume; but none of it does anything to address any of the real issues that separate owners from players. First among those is how to divide the $9 billion in annual revenue that the NFL generates. The owners’ starting position was that the amount that they should be allowed to take off the top to cover expenses should double, from $1 billion to $2 billion. That left the two sides only a mere billion dollars apart.

In addition to the fundamental question of how to carve up a $9 billion cake, also on the table are matters such as expanding the regular season to 18 games, benefits for retired players, the amount of guaranteed payments to draft picks, and the players’ demand that the teams open their books and provide full financial disclosure. Short of one side or the other simply backing down, none of those issues are easily resolved.

It’s tempting to characterize the whole thing as billionaires versus millionaires, and a lot of fans are still drawing comfort from the fact that the opening weekend of play on that schedule released Tuesday is still more than four months away. But the reality is that damage is already being done.

This is the time of year when teams would normally be holding organized workouts and training sessions, helping to ensure that players remain in shape. While many players are working out either individually or in small groups, not all are; and it’s not clear that self-designed workout regimens are going to be as effective as organized team-wide programs.

With the draft in the offing, this is also the time of year when general managers and head coaches start to get serious about building their squads for the coming season. But the lockout doesn’t just mean that there can be no free agent signings. It also means that next week there can be no trades of players once they have been selected. The only draft picks that can be traded are future picks. Nor can any existing players be dangled as part of a trade offer as teams attempt to improve their draft position. The lockout greatly diminishes roster-building flexibility at a critical time in the off-season.

There’s no escaping the fact that probably the quality of play, possibly the likelihood of injury, and certainly the composition of teams for next fall’s season is already being impacted, and yet there will be no more negotiating for almost another month. When the two sides do meet again, one or more court rulings may have at least temporarily tilted the scales one way or the other. But there’s nothing to stop the side that has been disadvantaged by those decisions from believing that a higher court will see things differently.

Fans are right to find it almost incomprehensible that a $9 billion cake that they, the fans have paid for, can’t feed everyone. But as I’ve said before, one should never underestimate the power of greed. The owners steadfastly stonewall the players’ demand to open the books of all 32 teams. If the financial situation of some teams is as parlous as the owners claim, what do they have to hide?

Meanwhile the clock is ticking, and fans who think there’s plenty of time left would do well to remember the wisdom of a hero from another sport. As Yogi Berra famously said about the afternoon shadows in left field at the old Yankee Stadium, “It gets late early out there.”

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