Planet NFL always in perfect orbit

Planet NFL always manages a perfect orbit

March 02, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

If the NFL existed in the same galaxy as every other big-time sports entity, nobody would be calling tomorrow "Bloody Friday." But we've been reminded once again that there's sports, and there's Planet NFL, the Land of Teflon, where no one else's rules apply but its own.

The NFL seems prepared to conduct business as usual when the deadline passes for the league and the union to extend their labor agreement before free agency hits. There are salary caps to squeeze under and players to hack off their rosters. If the landscape of putting teams together will then resemble the Wild, Wild West, then so be it.

The infighting between filthy-rich owners and stinkin'-rich owners might twist the next season or two into knots. Players, coaches, general managers and agents will be on all-Tylenol-and-Pepto diets for the next six months. It doesn't seem to matter to anyone else, though, because in six months there will be games being played, and that's all the entities at each end of the food chain - owners and fans - care about.

That's a big advantage to the NFL, the way the fans only want to see games. There won't be a strike or lockout, one of the benefits of the cozy relationship between the union and league. That relationship is still pretty cozy, by the way. This isn't the players' fight. Gene Upshaw walked away from the negotiating table a couple of days ago, called the talks "deadlocked" - and, by all indications, it didn't change the true dynamics of the debate one bit.

Upshaw knew, and has known, that this is less about players and owners splitting up the pie than about Dan Snyder and Dan Rooney splitting up a different pie. Once they get their issues about all those new revenue streams settled, this will go away quickly - because, for whatever reason, Upshaw and commissioner Paul Tagliabue manage to get things done when it comes down to the last step needing to be taken. The league gets theirs, and the players get theirs.

That's why the NFL isn't headed anywhere in the direction the NHL went last season, or the NBA threatened to go last summer. This 2006 season will make it 19 straight years the NFL will play an entire schedule free of work stoppages. It's one of the many things the fans love about the NFL.

They love it so much that they'll put up with this round of posturing and table-pounding and dramatic exits. Even if their favorite teams are gutted starting tomorrow - some teams already have started - they'll live with it. It's just a more drastic version of what they already get worked up about every year.

It's another way in which the NFL has come to dominate other sports' seasons besides their own - why they can get away with televising the scouting combine live, why the Wonderlic test can become as much a topic of national discussion as the SATs and why the term "March Madness" could really apply to cap cutting season.

It may be pointless to stir up talk about something as negative as a labor dispute, about players like Peter Boulware getting kicked out the door after years of loyal service because they want to collect on their contracts, rather than be punished for their teams' other personnel mistakes.

But recent history tells us that on Planet NFL, there is no bad news.

The league's fractured owners are almost completely responsible for this impasse, but they'll come out smelling like roses, just because they always do. Only losing strikes a real nerve among the faithful, and money becomes an issue when lots of money is spent badly and produces less than it's supposed to.

Players, not the leagues or owners, generally get the blame at times of labor unrest, out of instinct. Surely that's what the NFL figured when it released its official comment on the break of talks Tuesday. The agenda for yesterday's owners meeting, it said, was not to discuss revenue sharing, but to "explain to NFL clubs how the NFLPA is overreaching."

The average fan would buy that. It gives the owners a window to hash out their internal differences without it looking like anyone besides the greedy players is at fault.

The truth is that NFL fans are so forgiving, so hungry for their game, so easy to please - and so eager to surrender their hearts, souls and bank accounts - that the owners don't even know how to split it all up. If the owners have to plunge the sport into chaos for a few weeks or months or years before they figure it out, who's going to argue?

Are there going to be games in the fall? Yes.

End of discussion. Planet NFL lives on. Touch up the Teflon surfaces a little, and break out the axe. Bloody Friday is almost here.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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