Philadelphia commuters had to endure the recent SEPTA strike that denied them bus and subway rides. Will football fans face similar anger and frustration in 2011?
Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown and teammates will face the San Diego Chargers today, but Brown said NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith recently told players that there is a "95 percent chance of a lockout" by the owners for the 2011 season.
The union is collecting money and Smith has urged members to save 25 percent of their salaries.
"Of course, we're willing to sit out," Brown said. "It hurt the guys that sat out years ago, too, right? If they did it, it can be done. We're not the first people to do it."
The NFL players have never been locked out before, however. The three previous work stoppages - in 1973, 1981 and 1987 - were due to player strikes. There's a whole season and a half to play before a possible lockout, so there's still plenty of time to work out a deal. Unfortunately, from what can be gathered in bits and pieces, both sides seem far apart.
"The owners' intent is to come to an agreement," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told a group of newspaper reporters on Sept. 4. "The idea that the owners would be looking for a lockout, and that would be their objective, is foolish. That is not a practical outcome for them nor is it beneficial to the league."
Still, a week later, in an interview with Jim Rome, Goodell said: "I know the owners will be prepared for all alternatives, and I believe the players will probably be prepared themselves. My hope is that we can get down and get something done that will continue to grow the game and where everyone will benefit."
Goodell and Smith joined their negotiating teams in recent weeks, but there is no sign of progress.
"We are not commenting on the negotiations," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a text message to The Inquirer. "We provide play-by-plays of our games but not of our labor negotiations."
NFLPA spokesman Carl Francis declined to comment.
"There's not going to be public empathy for either side, which is why it's best to keep negotiations private," said Andrew Brandt of nationalfootballpost.com. Brandt is a former vice president of the Green Bay Packers and now teaches at the Wharton School. He also helped negotiate contracts for the Eagles in recent months.
To the general public, it's just greedy billionaire owners and greedy millionaire players fighting over two large pieces of a very large pie. Nevertheless, it's a problem that isn't likely to go away and could adversely affect fans of the nation's most popular sport.
In 2006, the late Gene Upshaw, former head of the NFLPA, brokered an extension of the collective bargaining agreement that would guarantee players an unprecedented 59 percent of revenue. It was the largest chunk of the four major professional sports.
"The deal struck in March 2006 passed pretty quickly," Brandt said. "But you started hearing rumblings almost immediately afterward that the owners got the short end of the stick."
The owners opted out of the deal in May 2008. A lockout would be the next conceivable step. The owners have argued that the players are unduly profiting from the existing collective bargaining agreement and from the new stadiums they've built partially on their own dimes.
"The cost of running a franchise is outpacing the rise in revenue," Brandt said. "They believe that the risk is not being shared appropriately. . . . It's hard to project the impact of the economy. But like any business, the NFL is not recession-proof."
The players want the collective bargaining agreement to run through 2012, as it was originally agreed upon, and have countered by asking the owners to open their books more and prove that their financial prospects are as grim as they say.
"They have a lot of risk, there's no doubt about that," said safety Quintin Mikell, the Eagles' alternate union representative. "We also, as players, have a lot of risk, too. We go out there every day and play hard and risk injury. There are no guarantees there. Anything can happen. But let's sit down and talk about it and put everything out there and fix it."
Smith, during an online chat at washingtonpost.com on Wednesday, asked why $8 billion in revenue, increases in team values, and every NFL team being worth approximately $1 billion, according to the last Forbes magazine rankings, wasn't enough for the owners.
"If they show us that the [collective bargaining agreement] plan in place doesn't work or make money, then we're not stupid - we'd be like, 'We got to change it. We'll do whatever you want us to do,' " said Brown, who replaced Brian Dawkins as the Eagles' rep last year. "We're not a bunch of greedy athletes trying to get more, trying to change anything."
The most recent news to come out of negotiations, reported by SportsBusiness Journal, was that the league proposed an adjustment to the current salary-cap system and a rookie wage scale.
According to Brandt, many of the teams are currently having trouble maximizing the cap. So, even if the NFL is "careening toward an uncapped year," as he said, it doesn't necessarily mean free-spending teams such as the Washington Redskins will become the New York Yankees of football. Of course, they could and frugal organizations like the Cincinnati Bengals could slash their costs with no cap minimum.
"You'll have a system that'll look more like baseball," Brandt said. "But it won't be as disparate."
Smith has said that if the cap goes, the players are never agreeing to another. Still, if there isn't a deal by a March deadline, players would not become unrestricted free agents until after six seasons, two years longer than the current system.
Close to 200 players are projected to be up for free agency, including Omar Gaither. The Eagles linebacker was lost for the season last month after he injured his foot. Because of the labor unrest, he doesn't know where he'll be next season.
"If they do get the deal done and I am a free agent, [it] doesn't mean that I won't be an Eagle," Gaither said. "But I think me being a free agent gives me more options."
The owners are looking for other revenue-generating options. The two most popular proposals are increasing the regular season from 16 to 18 games and expanding into Europe. The players are likely to have something to say about those plans and are preparing for the worst.
The owners, meanwhile, can seemingly afford a lockout. Armed with billions of dollars from television contracts - games or no games - they can afford to surrender touchdown after touchdown and still somehow come out on top.
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