A dangerous game of chicken??

By David Haugh
Updated: February 4, 2011

ARLINGTON, Tx. — At the beginning of Thursday’s NFL Players Association news conference to address a potential lockout, a powerful 60-second commercial showed a padlock on a chain-link fence before flashing images of a vacant football stadium and empty locker rooms.

About 15 seconds into the spot, a deep voice breaks the silence: “Let us play.” Near the end of it, a cute blue-eyed kid in shoulder pads and a helmet yells “Let them play!” The commercial’s production was slick, the message to NFL owners strong.

That’s when the NFLPA should have ended its presentation.

Instead, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and his power suit took the podium. The more the skilled former trial lawyer talked, the more I wondered if Smith wanted to find a compromise position as badly as he wanted to be right.

If Smith sought to turn down the heat on the rhetoric with the March 4 expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement looming, then he should have left his matches at home.

“I believe the league has taken steps to effectuate a lockout for a very long time,” Smith said. “I think it would be an understatement to say there’s a disagreement. There’s a fundamental disagreement.” Asked about an over-the-top comment he made last month comparing this labor battle to war, Smith shot back at a reporter.

“Did you read the other 1,900 words?” he asked. “I’m not sure any of the guys I continue to talk to shy away from blunt language.” Later, Smith chastised another writer for reporting the players receive 60 percent of league’s $9 billion annual revenue when the union contends it is 50 percent. That was after a testy Smith took exception to the suggestion that Congress could offer the NFLPA little more than good publicity.

And you thought the biggest matchup this week was the Troy Polamalu against Aaron Rodgers. As far as most popular topics of Super Bowl week, it’s a toss-up between Jay Cutler and the NFL work stoppage.

Saturday’s negotiating session has created almost as much buzz as the Hall of Fame announcements.

The players have legitimate concerns. Owners seek to implement an 18-game season at a time the league has toughened policies on concussions and player safety. Specifics of a rookie salary cap must be ironed out.

No team has reported a financial loss yet owners seek to reduce the players’ cut 18 percent to cover costs and “grow the pie,” according to NFL executive president Jeff Pash.

“So that means basically they want me to buy my own breakfast and lunch, pay for airfare to games, the hotel, pay for my shoes. That’s about 18 percent. Do you pay for your pad and pens?” Bears kicker Robbie Gould, the team’s player representative, asked over the phone as he was snowed in in Chicago.

“We’re not asking for any more but we’re not going to take any less,” Gould said. “Fans don’t want to see millionaires fighting billionaires.

We want to play too. But given the circumstances the NFL is completely out of line.” It’s easy to see Gould’s point. But it’s a hard sell because nobody on either side is getting poor.

Guys making the rounds at Radio Row such as Tommie Harris and Larry Fitzgerald, et al, are millionaires because of the NFL. Player salaries have doubled in the past decade and the average NFL salary now approaches $2 million.

Does the union really think that saying this is about the fans makes the guy earning $60,000 who can afford one game a year, maybe, feel more empathy for the plight of the NFL player?

As valid as some of the union complaints might be, sorry, the players need the league more than the owners need the players. The first thing to go for many NFL players isn’t ability. It’s perspective.

The public doesn’t want to hear players whine about being treated fairly. Unfair in today’s economy is a working family wondering where the grocery or rent money will come from after the job loss of a parent.

If the league continues to grow as much as Smith expects, how much money will players lose in the long run anyway?

Reality hits March 4 when, if a new deal isn’t reached, nearly 500 players will miss out on millions of dollars worth of bonuses. They also will lose health-insurance benefits. At that point the Bears offensive line might look like a strong, united front compared to the rank-and-file of the NFLPA.

“We’re a family,” NFLPA player president Kevin Mawae said.

It could be one headed for Jerry Springer’s show. Of the 1,900 players he represents, Smith lamented several had family members facing terminal illness or organ transplants. He also bemoaned the 200 player families who were expecting babies having to pay for their own care.

Is this their “war” too?

Their real-life concerns would seem to make Smith sound more motivated to find compromise, not conflict. I didn’t hear that. I only heard one thing from Smith that made me nod my head.

“The people who have the most to lose,” Smith said, “are our fans.” So don’t let them.