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Baseball has always been regarded as the national pastime, but with continued fallout from the steroids era numbing the average sports enthusiast more than ever, football has become king in this country by a wide margin.
That popularity, however, does have a dark cloud hovering above and growing larger every day, as labor unrest is a hot topic in the National Football League for the first time in a generation. With the owners opting out of the current collective bargaining agreement this past May, and negotiations between owners and players not making much progress, the landscape of professional pigskin we have come to know and love may be quite different next season. The salary cap that has helped maintain the kind of competitive balance baseball has failed to emulate would be thrown out the window for 2010, and a lockout would then officially be on the table for 2011.
Wednesday, the NFL presented its case to the highest court in the land that, like Major League Baseball, it needs broader protection from antitrust lawsuits.
"The National Football League asked the Supreme Court to rule that they were above the law," said DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association, speaking Wednesday at an event for the Retired Professional Football Players of Chicago. "They argued that they should no longer be subject to the same antitrust laws that have governed sports since the '30s."
The battle on Capitol Hill, while important, is secondary these days for Smith, as he is concentrating his efforts on the CBA and trying to get a deal done before the hammer comes down in March.
"We continue to have negotiations," he said. "We had one this week. We'll have one next week. I've made a promise not to talk publicly about those negotiations. I will say this: I'm always happy when we get more and more information. I think that as the information exchange increases, I think the likelihood of a quick resolution increases proportionately. So we'll continue to talk, but we've got a lot of work to do."
On the surface, the game appears to be healthy and happy on every level. Stadiums are packed on game day. TV ratings are as good as ever. Players make so much more money than the legends they grew up idolizing did. The average franchise is worth $1 billion. The game's premier event, the Super Bowl, is watched from Albania to Zimbabwe and just about everywhere in between.
It's a classic case of billionaires fighting with millionaires over money, although Smith wants to remind football fans who started the strife in the first place.
"I think it is important that our fans understand that our players want to play," he said. "We didn't walk away from this collective bargaining agreement. We had a deal from 2006 that we signed to stay in place until 2012. The owners walked away from that deal in 2008. It's important for us to understand why they walked away. It's important for us to get information that demonstrates if there is the necessity of a change."
While all the unoccupied seats you see these days in NBA arenas prove that big-time professional sports are far from immune to a struggling economy, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Co. are printing money faster than ever.
"No one is happier about the overall business success of the National Football League than me and our players," said Smith. "Last year, as we started into the worst recession of our lives, it generated $8 billion in revenue. In this economy, they have been able to secure television contracts which guarantee revenue until at least 2013."
Those television contracts are what make the looming lockout in 2011 more than just an empty threat, as the owners would still get their cut of that cash regardless of whether there is an actual product on the field or not.
"If any one of you can come up with another business in America that has secured guaranteed revenue to the tune of at least $5 billion a year until 2013, in this economy, drinks are on me," Smith offered.
Plainly speaking, Smith doesn't get why $8 billion isn't enough.
"Even in this recession," he said, "by the way, gate attendance was down only about one percent. One percent. Television ratings are the highest they've ever been. Viewership for these games is higher than it's ever been. Business is extremely good. I have a hard time understanding why in an era of such good business why we just can't get this thing taken care of sooner rather than later."
Not only does Smith represent the current crop of gridiron gladiators, but he is also the most vocal voice on behalf of retired players. On more than one occasion Wednesday, the union chief went out of his way to say he represents "players," and by players he included the retirees who helped build the legacy the NFL has created and individual teams sell to their respective fans. As a matter of fact, Smith removed the term "retired players" from his personal vernacular and has replaced it with "former players."
But with revenues rising at staggering rates and owners in the black like never before, pensions and medical benefits for ex-players have remained relatively – and often embarrassingly – low.
"We know that in the last 20 years, the average team value has increased 500 percent. … So my question is, as those values have grown exponentially, what has been the proportional increase in former player benefits from those teams to the folks who created that legacy? I'm asking somewhat rhetorically."
Smith and his family are long-time season ticket holders of the Washington Redskins, who have 35 former players in their Ring of Fame at FedEx Field – every one of them has one thing in common.
"The last check that they ever got from their team was when they played."
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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.