A no-win situation

By Monte Poole
Updated: January 27, 2011

OAKLAND — A few fans were burning jerseys in Chicago over the weekend, just as a few of them did six months ago in Cleveland.

A lot of fans have chosen in recent years to stay away from the Coliseum in Oakland, because the baseball team wants out and the football team has lost its way.

As unemployment has remained high, as credit has gotten harder to obtain, as working people sacrifice to survive, the air about sports, generally perceived as a sanctuary from the challenges of life, has become hotter than ever.

It will get downright volatile if fans are deprived of their beloved NFL.

Five months ago, I was certain there would be no lockout. Both sides are too smart to do that to themselves. Owners are thriving, players are prosperous. The game has never been more popular and profitable or better at siphoning cash from its addicts.

Nothing could convince me the league and its players union would be willing to jeopardize their immense popularity, much less chop down the money trees they share.

Now that the sniping is under way, I’m a little less certain a collective bargaining agreement will be in place by the March 3 deadline.

With 35 days until then, both sides are resorting to posturing, as happens when there is a looming conflict. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association director DeMaurice Smith are snorting and sniping and making the expected threats.

They are playing games with each other, orchestrating campaigns designed to catch any drop of sympathy the public may have.

When Goodell stated Wednesday that he’ll reduce his annual salary from $10 million to $1 if there is a lockout, he wasn’t speaking to the NFL Players Association. He wasn’t speaking to or for the owners he represents.

Goodell was speaking to the fans, to those who simply want a resolution. The commissioner knows, just as Bears quarterback Jay Cutler knows, fans are edgier than ever and will find someone or something to blame. Goodell’s vow is his way of whispering into the ear of an increasingly anxious public that he’s willing to sacrifice for them because, hey, he cares.

“Let me emphasize that we are committed to doing everything possible to reach a new collective bargaining agreement,” Goodell said in a letter to NFL owners.

Hearing about Goodell’s pledge to cut his salary, Smith responded via, you guessed it, Twitter: “If we have a deal by the Super Bowl,” he tweeted, “I’ll go down to 68 cents.”

What Goodell and Smith fail to recognize is fans don’t care about their salaries. Fans, quite frankly, don’t care about Goodell and Smith.

Fans care about having an NFL team nearby or seeing one from their living rooms. They care about tailgating or sitting before big-screen TVs. They care about the price of season tickets, the price of NFL Sunday Ticket, the price of NFL Network.

They care less about the chiefs in the labor beef than they do about the price of the jersey they’ll torch in a moment of outrage.

The average NFL franchise is worth about $1 billion.

Though one of the issues among the owners is displeasure from those who generate more earnings than others, they still share obscene amounts of TV revenue.

The average NFL player makes about $1.7 million. He’s not poor, but he bears the brunt of the suffering and sacrifice while taking in considerably less than the owner.

Players at the core of the business, attracting the fans, retire after a few years with a few dollars, a lot of sweet memories and all too often, a lifetime of physical agony.

Owners rarely retire because business is too good, their egos are too big and nobody can make them leave. One owner, Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson, is 92 and at least seven more are in their 80s.

Though it’s virtually impossible for an NFL owner to go broke, it happens to players with alarming frequency. Sometimes, it’s bad investments.

Mostly, though, it goes back to inadequate retirement benefits relative to the tremendous punishment their bodies absorb.

Sadly, most fans — especially those under 40 — don’t care about that, either. They love the game and they love their teams. They crave the action. If you don’t believe the end of each football season leaves millions of Americans with a hangover, ask a real fan.

Imagine, then, the unrest should there be no season. Or, worse, a season with players we don’t know representing the teams we thought we knew.

If fans will burn jerseys when a LeBron James leaves town or a Jay Cutler disappoints a city, we don’t want to see where that destructive energy could go without sport as a natural outlet.