Current squabbling a bad omen for NFL owners

March 04, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The labor strife gripping the NFL is actually two separate disagreements. The one between the players and owners is making headlines because it involves the salary cap and could lead to wholesale lineup changes, but the disagreement between the rich and not-as-rich owners figures to be more important in the long run.

It centers on what has to be the most dangerous phrase in sports, the one that football owners have studiously avoided while watching it devastate baseball:

"Gimme mine."

Suddenly, for the first time in memory, a few influential NFL owners are saying it, perhaps faintly now, but with ominous determination.

And you wonder why commissioner Paul Tagliabue is looking unusually weary this week?

Players wanting everything they're owed are a sports staple, but the absence of "gimme mine" owners is what has enabled the NFL to browbeat its players union into submission, control its financial landscape and become the nation's most popular and profitable sports entity. Since the early 1960s, when they agreed to share their growing national television revenues, NFL owners have been unified, always willing to put the league's interests first.

The football players have never stood a chance against such an impregnable cartel, as opposed to the baseball players, who have only had to battle a tenuous coalition of distrustful owners whose mantra seems to be "every man for himself."

Why do baseball players have guaranteed contracts and not football players? Why do baseball players strike fear in the hearts of their owners when they threaten to walk out (as they have done countless times) but football players frighten no one?

Because of the absence of "gimme mine" owners in the NFL, the absence of guys wanting to keep the money they're making just because other guys aren't making as much.

Tagliabue and the 32 owners tried to say they were as unified as ever this week, but fractiousness in their ranks has surfaced. Certain owners are profiting from various revenue streams that aren't supposed to be shared - seat license fees, luxury box leases, stadium naming rights, soda pouring rights, et cetera - and they don't want to share because that extra money enables them to pay more for coaches and maximize loopholes in the salary cap, giving them an advantage over teams that don't earn as much.

Such thinking goes against the NFL's carefully legislated share-the-wealth model, which has created the parity that makes the league so popular - as opposed to baseball, where half the teams are eliminated before the season's first pitch because they can't compete with the Yankees for players.

The Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones and the Washington Redskins' Daniel Snyder are said to be the leaders of the "gimme mine" pack. Former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson once said he'd never met anyone who could make money faster and better than Jones.

It's the American way to keep what you make, but in the NFL, those are fighting words.

You know that old-line, league-first owners such as the Pittsburgh Steelers' Dan Rooney and former Ravens owner Art Modell- the guys who banded together to make the league successful - recognize the need to try to protect their beloved level playing field. But fewer and fewer of those owners are left.

I doubt the situation will boil over this time, just like I doubt the current dispute between the players and owners will lead to chaos, as some are predicting. The football players always cave in the end. You can look it up. Football players are different from baseball players - fundamentally, intrinsically team-oriented. They don't want to hurt their teams.

Why, the football union is so complicit that it almost sees itself as an NFL business partner. Think the baseball players would have agreed to a last-minute request for extra time (basically this weekend) to work out a deal? The baseball players would have said, "Put that in your eye. This is your problem."

Tagliabue tried to paint the players as greedy for asking for 60 percent of all revenues, saying their offer amounts to wanting to have their cake and eat it, too. But I have a hard time castigating them when their contracts can be ripped up and declared worthless at any time - conditions that would cause baseball players to howl.

Watch, the NFL owners and players will eventually find common ground, and the games will go on. But a conflict between the "gimme mine" owners and their old-school counterparts seems increasingly inevitable, the outgrowth of their stark philosophical disagreement.

The upper hand the football owners have maintained is based on their dedication to sharing, but the sound of protest, however faint now, represents what could evolve into the greatest threat to the NFL's supremacy.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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