NFL lockout hitting home

Five (more) thoughts on the NFL lockout . . .

1. The NFL lockout is not something I prefer to write about or even think about. Courtroom football is not the fun kind of football, and the various rulings and posturings and false alarms have been quite tiring and frustrating for many involved, from the casual fan to the semi-educated observer (me) to those actually involved with some aspect of the business and the game. Those who know the game know it’s a business first and can understand how things have gotten ugly — and how they might continue to get uglier from here on out. Without diving into the legalese and things I won’t claim to understand, we’re all awaiting the June 3 appeal of the original ruling that lifted the lockout. If that sounds like a lot to keep up with, it is. Basically, if the players win that day, the doors could be forced open soon after. But if the owners win, they’ll keep their trump cards and keep putting pressure on the players to cave.

2. The owners are flexing a little muscle, in both subtle ways and ways that are anything but. News broke over the last 24 hours that at least two more teams are forcing employee furloughs or cutting salaries — the Ravens are reportedly cutting salaries by 25 percent during the lockout — and that the league has canceled the annual Rookie Symposium, which was set for the first time to be held in Canton, Ohio, late next month. That means the lockout is hitting home, even if you don’t know people that work for the Ravens (many have Northeast Ohio roots) or work in one of the many industries and/or companies that will be affected by the Canton area suddenly not having 300-plus mouths to feed and people to house for four days in June. Browns rookies (and other new players) aren’t living in the Middleburg Heights hotel they’d normally be living at this time of year. And though it’s still months away, for the first time regular folks who count on traffic — whether the automobile kind, the searching-for-food-and-drink kind and the dirtying-the-stadium kind — flowing toward NFL stadiums starting in August are starting to sweat. The NFL is a big, big business. And this is a big deal.

3. Owners forcing furloughs or cutting salaries is nothing short of ridiculous and unnecessary, if you ask me. And if you’re still reading at this point, you did. Sure, lots of teams have high-dollar vice presidents and executives who are more than qualified to run these billion-dollar businesses and capitalize on the opportunities the exposure of the NFL affords them. But take it from someone who worked in the league for a long time, the majority of folks make very regular wages while working eight days a week to help their respective teams — and, in turn, the league — remain the big deal on many levels they have become. The best organizations have the best people, from quarterback to college scout to public relations person to ticket sales secretary, and it takes an army to make these organizations run the way most of them do. Putting these folks in the fire is straight greed and short-sightedness, and it’s something that doesn’t need to happen.
The Browns, to their credit, have said they won’t cut employees or their salaries and have stood by that thus far. It just seems more than a little hypocritical that the league that wanted players to attend its draft is telling them no symposium — and telling its veteran players no further education programs at Penn and Harvard and no broadcast boot camp. Some of it is reality; teams can’t have contact with league employees. And some of it is bad business, the posturing and justifying bad decisions kind.

4. Teams are still collecting and soliciting ticket money from fans, even with no guarantee that games will be played on time. I truly believe fans won’t really get angry if this thing gets resolved in the next 60 days, but if even one day of training camp is missed, the league really runs the risk of turning people off. Part of our love of football is our love for the traditions and events that go with it, and people love coming to training camp. As bad as preseason NFL football is, folks still watch. If and when actual games are lost, then I’ll understand franchises losing money and needing to make tough decisions on the business side. But if the Browns and Bengals find season-ticket sales down (again), it’s not the fault of the people selling the tickets, running the website or working in community relations. It’s the fault of those responsible for the product on the field.   

5. By now, teams have missed actual work. Different coaches call it different names, but anywhere between one and three weeks of quarterback school and organized team activity practice (and meeting) sessions have been missed. Almost every team would have had a three-day minicamp by now, and some teams would have had two. With most schools out for summer, rookies would have reported for work sometime in the last week. That time is just as valuable for the rookies getting to know each other, their teammates, their coaches and their new cities as it is for their workouts or practice time. The Browns, of course, are really hurt by this missed time as they have an almost entirely new coaching staff that has been sitting in the office since mid-January without any players to coach. The offense won’t be totally new, but the wording will be. And the defense is totally, start-from-scratch different in terms of the philosophy, scheme and personnel.
It might not be realistic to think the Browns could be ready to win if they ultimately get just two or three weeks of training camp before the season opener. But they could be going against a Bengals team with a rookie QB, a new offensive coordinator and a whole bunch of questions in that opener, so only time will tell. And the gap between the top teams in the AFC North and the Ohio teams may get wider before it gets smaller.

For now, that concern can wait. More courtroom football has to be played before the kind that always brings surprises and drama can inch back to life.