For unintentional comedy, it has been difficult to top the National Football League as it lurches clumsily and idiotically toward a labor war.

Two weeks ago, in Dallas, commissioner Roger Goodell and his lead negotiator, Jeff Pash, harrumphed about the union's use of the courts in the run-up to the March 4 lockout deadline. Just over a week later, the league filed a complaint against the union with the National Labor Relations Board.


One minute, you get an e-mail from the league's PR officials trumpeting the enormous success of the league: Highest-rated this! Most popular that! The next minute, you get somber word that the owners are really, really hurting because of the onerous collective bargaining agreement with the players.


If you're having trouble following the intricacies of this latest sports labor brouhaha, here are the essentials.

The owners voted, 30-2, for the CBA extension that was ratified in 2006. The owners, for whom a contract is sacred when some player decides he's underpaid and wants to renegotiate, decided in 2008 to opt out of that same deal, forcing the deadline that looms now at the beginning of March.

The owners hired the outside attorney who steered the NHL's 2004 lockout of its players. The owners arranged to have their broadcast partners pay them their fees even if there are no games. The owners demanded that discussions on a new deal begin with roughly a billion-dollar-a-year giveback by the players.

The owners whine about the debts they've taken on to build the new stadiums they insisted they had to have, but never mention the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars invested in those same facilities.

If you're having any trouble spotting the bad guy in this, here's a clue: It's the owners.

In fairness, there probably is no graceful way to shove your so-called "partners" to the side while you command a larger place at the trough. Those who see the NFL's annual revenues of about $9 billion and figure there ought to be enough for everyone are missing the bigger picture.

Goodell and the owners believe revenues are going to expand exponentially over the next 20 years. There will be an 18-game regular season. There will be expansion. There will be games in London and Japan and Mexico. Eventually, there will be franchises on other continents. There will be another explosion in income from new technologies.

This is a league that sold $200 tickets for fans to stand outside Cowboys Stadium and watch the Super Bowl on a large screen. Think there may be some new apps available for your iPads and smartphones?

These future billions are the real issue here. It isn't that the owners can't grow their profits while paying players the percentages spelled out in the expiring agreement. It's that the future profits are so enormous, the owners can't bear the idea of the players getting that big a share.

It's where the unintentional comedy comes in. It sounds like something out of Dr. Strangelove when Goodell gets going on the potential billions out there. His swagger short-circuits the part of his brain in charge of crying poor on behalf of his billionaire constituents. He can't help himself.

There was a fascinating bit of coincidence on Friday:

In Washington, the league and the union held their first meeting under the guidance of George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

In Indianapolis, the Colts released one of the best defensive players in their history, safety Bob Sanders, because his body was too broken down for him to play effectively anymore.

In Miami, former NFL safety Dave Duerson was found dead. He was 50. While the cause of death was not immediately known, it was impossible not to reflect on how many former NFL players die well before their time.

It is often said that this labor battle pits billionaires against millionaires, and that is partly true. But most NFL players are not, and never will be, millionaires. Most of them make very good money, by any standard, for a few short years. Some are able to live off those earnings, or parlay them into business ventures. The one dividend that keeps paying all of them is physical pain from the brutal sport they played.

That's their choice, to play the game. No one is suggesting that you feel sorry for the players. Just know that it was the owners who tore up the deal they'd agreed to and started the clock ticking on a lockout. It is the owners who couldn't abide seeing the players get the same cut of what they believe will be a much larger, richer pie.

Maybe, with a grown-up in the room in Washington, a fair deal can be struck without a labor stoppage. Let's hope so, because the alternative just isn't as funny as the jokers who started this.