Sometime around 4 p.m. on April 25, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will walk onstage at Radio City Music Hall. He’ll utter a name like, say, Matthew Stafford. And Stafford, born in February of 1988, will come out and shake hands with Goodell.
Stafford, at that moment, will be about $50 million richer. And he’ll beam, knowing a lack of money will never again be an issue.
And Goodell — lord of the most lucrative, powerful and closely-followed sport in the land, a man who makes about $11 million in salary himself — will smile, too.
But backstage, the golden goose that made these and thousands of other men wealthy will still be held at knifepoint.
The goose is the game itself. The NFL Players’ Association and the league’s 32 owners are the ones threatening it.
The threat of an NFL work stoppage is real and drawing near. And what are the two sides doing about it? Lobbing verbal grenades and digging foxholes in advance of the “great battle.”
And if you don’t think it’s a battle, check the rhetoric.
DeMaurice Smith, elected as the new Executive Director of the NFLPA last month, said within 24 hours of assuming his new job, “There isn’t a day where I don’t hope for peace. But at the same time, there isn’t a day where we won’t prepare for war.”
In praising Smith’s election, Chester Pitts of the Houston Texans said it was important to have a person like Smith, “When you’re fighting a war against billionaires.”
Tough talk. Especially tough given that “war” participants normally run the risk of getting their heads blown off.
Meanwhile, the league’s owners have been hoarding pennies and preparing for March 2011 (23 months from now) when a work stoppage would likely begin. Teams are cutting personnel, making sure that many of the contracts they do with coaches and other staff can be opted out of if a lockout occurs.
“All I can tell you is that the NFL is building a blueprint and making sure we are all educated on what ramifications are for a potential work stoppage,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said in January.
The players are building a robust strike fund of their own that they plan to lean on when the checks stop coming in.
What’s the issue? Money. (Surprise, surprise).
Players now receive 59.5 percent of all money generated by the league. The salary cap for each team is now at $127 million, up from $85.5 million in 2006. Owners say they’re getting soaked. They want a rookie wage scale so they don’t have to hand $40 million in guaranteed money to unproven players. They want players to understand that stadium costs in the current economy are killing them.
The players want to see every detail to find out just how badly owners are getting hurt. Their rallying cry is “Open your books...” which they say more often than a seventh-grade English teacher.
The owners steadfastly refuse to do that, adding to the distrust.
Real face-to-face negotiations between Smith and Goodell? None yet.
And while Smith’s recent election will be used as an excuse for that, it’s clear the sides are currently more interested in digging in than rolling up their sleeves and finding resolution.
Meanwhile, checkpoints are being passed without pause. When the next league year begins in a little more than 10 months, there will be no salary cap in place. In 2006, prompted in part by a fear of a no-cap 2007, the two sides worked furiously to get the new deal done.
But the urgency isn’t there this time. It’s a staring contest. And while both sides will try to curry the favor of fans — Smith has already shown a penchant for talking about the stadium workers who’ll be impacted by a lockout — neither side is going to get much sympathy.
The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball all went through work stoppages in the 90s and all suffered greatly. The NFL has avoided them. A work stoppage — a battle over how billions will be distributed — in this climate will not fly well.
Hard as each side tries to plead its case to the public, nobody’s really going to care who’s right and who’s wrong.
That the players and owners don’t care about them, the fans who’ve helped build the NFL into the most popular sport in the country by far ... that will be the message.
And that will cause fans to wonder why they cared so passionately and invested so much in the first place.
PFT: Defensive end finally finds a new team in San Diego — and for a honey of a deal that would be worth a max of $13.35 million.
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