COLUMN: Players, fans fear lockout

Less than 72 hours after the last play signaled the end of Super Bowl XLV, Americans are settling down for the storm that has been brewing all season long.

Since the emergence of the modern NFL under the 1993 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) the league and the sport has seen an unprecedented level of growth from second fiddle to Major League Baseball to the undisputed king of American sports. This past fiscal year, fans saw the NFL gross over $8 billion in profits between television contracts, ticket sales and merchandise licensing. The way the recently expired CBA was structured, owners claimed the first billion dollars to split amongst themselves.

After that, the players union was able to take 60 percent for itself in the form of salaries as well as the pension commitments the league maintains for players who are retired. This comes on the heels of recent efforts by former NFL players to lobby Congress to put pressure on both the league as well as the NFL players association to provide better care for its disabled veterans. Many former players suffer from dementia, debilitating pain and have at times been homeless since their playing days.

While at the same time turning a blind eye to veterans and with the inflation of costs for NFL owners to operate their franchises, they decided to back out of the CBA and are now maintaining they need to claim an additional 20 percent of the profit pie. The prime example that owners point to is the Green Bay Packers, the only publicly owned team in the NFL, which has seen costs rise nearly double in the past decade while the profit margin has been in steady decline to just $8 million last year.

So with all of that spelled out, what does this mean for the average sports fan? Currently the owners are proposing an expansion of the regular season from 16 to 18 games and the elimination of two preseason games. The owners also proposed a structured salary limit for rookie players. The first issue is more of a problem than the second.

While rookies who haven’t played a single NFL down shouldn’t be allowed to make more than a seasoned player, the principle in the NFL has been that you get what you can while you can. In the only major American sports league that lacks the guaranteed salary structure which the NBA or MLB feature,  it has been harder to argue why young men straight from college who haven’t proven anything should be paid more than players like Aaron Rodgers, last Sunday’s MVP.  Unless the owners are willing to integrate a more rigid contract structure that features more guaranteed money for their players then the idea that the players will agree to expand the length of the season is just ludicrous.

Take the two teams that played last Sunday. On the biggest stage of American sports both teams were a shell of themselves from where they started the year. The Pittsburgh Steelers played without their pro bowl center while the Packers featured a secondary that had seen over half a dozen different starters this season.

Adding in two more regular season would necessitate expansion of the roster from 53 players currently to 60 players. Combining a 20 percent reduction in available funds for salaries with an increase in the amount of players that get a piece of the profits seems counter to a profitable scheme for the NFL.

If there is any justice in this world, there will be a long layoff for the NFL that cuts next season short. This is the kind of thing that needs to happen so that billionaires and millionaires can gain some perspective and figure out that the average fan doesn’t care if you made 20 or 30 million last year or if you get to charge two more games for regular season price. To paraphrase Hank Williams Jr., “Are you ready for some football in October?”