DRUNK WITH MONEY, absolutely cashfaced, the NFL began a slow, unsteady walk yesterday toward the brink. But they are not even close yet, so relax.

The league cannot commit the ultimate stupidity before 2011, so we all still have 3 years before either a strike or a lockout. The salary cap might disappear in 2010. The draft might disappear in 2011. Players with already-short careers might see their free-agency rights diminished significantly. The union might disband and toss the whole thing into the lap of a federal judge.

Or not. That is the beauty of this nonsense - that it is nonsense until right at the end, when it is time to make a deal or leap headfirst into the abyss. Back when, the NFL could dive off cliffs with the best of them, like those kids in Acapulco. It was always something - Al Davis, the union, something - and the league wasted countless amounts of energy and money and years in the process.

For 15 years, though, they have opted for peace and prosperity. There are franchises worth more than $1 billion now, including your Philadelphia Eagles. The players get almost 60 percent of the pot and the pot is big enough now to hold $7 billion a year, and counting. It is enough money to paper over any problem, one would think.

But, yesterday, the NFL owners voted unanimously to cut 2 years off the current contract with the players, starting an unfortunate clock. And they have all kinds of complaints, the owners do. What follows comes from their news release. The italic additions are mine.

"The NFL earns very substantial revenues. But the clubs are obligated by the CBA to spend substantially more than half their revenues - almost $4.5 billion this year alone - on player costs."

Greedy, greedy players. Tsk, tsk.

"In addition, as we have explained to the union, the clubs must spend significant and growing amounts on stadium construction, operations and improvements to respond to the interests and demands of our fans. The current labor agreement does not adequately recognize the costs of generating the revenues of which the players receive the largest share; nor does the agreement recognize that those costs have increased substantially - and at an ever increasing rate - in recent years during a difficult economic climate in our country. As a result, under the terms of the current agreement, the clubs' incentive to invest in the game is threatened."

Construction and borrowing costs are skyrocketing for new stadiums for the Cowboys, Giants and Jets. We want the players to help pay for this. And no, we're not giving the players any of the money from the skyrocketing value of the franchises that will result from the new stadiums. That's all ours. Paws off.

"There are substantial other elements of the deal that simply are not working. For example, as interpreted by the courts, the current CBA effectively prohibits the clubs from recouping bonuses paid to players who subsequently breach their player contacts or refuse to perform. That is simply irrational and unfair to both fans and players who honor their contracts."

Michael Vick, Michael Vick, Michael Vick.

"Also irrational is that in the current system some rookies are able to secure contracts that pay them more than top proven veterans."

Greedy, greedy, etc.

You get the point.

They also dance around the real point - that the problem is not the amount the players are being paid, but the manner in which the owners' share is distributed among the various teams.

The real problem with the new stadiums is not the costs - it is that the Giants/Jets stadium alone might increase the salary cap by more than $2 million per team per year - and that is only one of a bunch of stadiums built in the last decade.

So, with each of them, three things happened. First, overall league revenues went up, giving the players their 60 percent share: players, happy. Second, the teams that built the stadiums saw their individual revenues and franchise values grow enormously: new stadium owners, happy. Third, the poor shlub owners - a relative term here - who didn't get a new stadium got no cash out of the deal, had to help finance the new construction as part of a leaguewide loan program, and still had to pay more and more because of the growing salary cap (which also contains a salary floor): poor shlubs, unhappy.

The problem is that third group. Many are in smaller markets, like Buffalo, where you could never hope to sell 200 luxury boxes for obscene amounts of money, as the Jets and Giants are. The revenue disparity between big and small grows every year.

That is the problem. The rest of this is noise.

But, still, it has begun. The owners cannot lose here unless they get piggish - again, a relative term. The thing is stacked in the owners' favor as long as the players continue to have such short careers and high injury risks.

But we are months and years away from anything. Yesterday was simply the first, lurching step. *

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