Saturday, March 12, 2011

Locked Out

NFL fans, don't kid yourselves.

This breakdown in labor talks was an inevitable moment.

It was bound to happen. It was like that week before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, when people stood transfixed for days, watching as it meandered across the vast Gulf of Mexico and only began taking steps to protect themselves — or get the hell out of there — when the storm was practically on top of them.

The NFL and the players bought themselves a few days to dream about a miracle. When one did not happen, they were forced to do what they should have done earlier.

I feel somewhat vindicated by Don Banks of Sports Illustrated, who writes, "Here's wishing they would have saved us all some time and skipped the explanations of what went wrong, or why things broke down once again."

It's all public posturing.

And, really, who can blame either side? They're only mimicking what they have seen their national leaders doing, and they've all been guilty of it. No one is blameless.

Everyone points fingers and assigns blame — and nothing gets accomplished.

Well, they went through their week of pretending that they were making progress, but they really weren't. Now, they have to get down to the hard work, and the pressure will just increase as the days go by. The NFL draft is supposed to be held next month. Players should be going through offseason conditioning programs and drills. In a few months, training camps will be scheduled to open.

Fans will be increasingly impatient — until an agreement is reached or the NFL does what major league baseball had to do 17 years ago and cancel the season.

That didn't really work out too well for baseball. The 1994 World Series was canceled and the start of the 1995 season was delayed, leaving a bad taste in everyone's mouth that lingered for a few years and didn't go away until the home run duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1997.

That gave baseball a shot in the arm — until it was revealed that McGwire, probably Barry Bonds and possibly Sosa hit hundreds of home runs in their careers (especially the late 1980s, the 1990s and the early 2000s) with the artificial assistance of steroids.

Since those revelations, America's pastime has been steadily losing fans.

The same fate awaits NFL owners and players if they don't get over their greed and resolve their differences.

It might be worse. The economy wasn't great in 1994 — but it was a lot better than it is today. Unemployed fans may not be as sympathetic as they were then.

For that matter, fans were a lot more sympathetic four decades ago, when athletes were virtual slaves to their teams and had no control over their professional lives.

But today many fans see all professional athletes as overpaid prima donnas and all team owners as greedy.

The NFL's most recent experience with a work stoppage as nearly a quarter of a century ago. Much has changed in that time. Tom Landry was still coaching the Dallas Cowboys. Joe Montana was still playing for the San Francisco 49ers.

That lockout was modest compared to what may be in store for the NFL in 2011. The players' strike lasted less than four weeks. Three games were played with "replacement players," and one game was canceled.

It was often treated as a gag. The replacement teams were given funny nicknames, like the Chicago Spare Bears, and fans seemed to embrace legitimate pro football when it returned.

But there doesn't seem to be much that is funny about this situation.

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