Players should let owners twist in wind

July 21, 2011

The owners blinked.

All it took was the potential cancellation of the Hall of Fame Game to force Roger Goodell and NFL ownership to reveal their bluff Thursday.

It’s not 1987. They’re not dumb enough to sacrifice one of their 16 regular-season games to fix a non-existent problem. The NFL is far from broken. It’s one of the few products America still produces far better than the rest of the world.

The lockout has been one long, poorly executed bluff.

Goodell and his bosses have been pretending they’d rather blow up the league than honor the partnership and deal Gene Upshaw and Paul Tagliabue forged.

For years, Upshaw was portrayed as an ownership lapdog and a bumbling idiot not competent enough to land NFL players guaranteed contracts. The narrative changed once Upshaw died and greedy owners saw his death as an opportunity to fleece what was perceived to be a weakened union.

The new narrative is Upshaw cut a deal that was too sweet for the players. The previous collective bargaining agreement -- the one ownership opted out of two years early -- was so heavily weighted in favor of the players that ownership was allegedly willing to skip regular-season games to break the union.

Do you believe that now?

Seventeen days before the ceremonial Hall of Fame Game, the owners and Goodell hatched a Hail Mary public-relations ploy trying to bully the players into agreeing to a deal the players had yet to read. Goodell held a news conference proclaiming the lockout over.

“We have crafted a long-term agreement that is good for the game of football,” Goodell told the media in Atlanta. “We are anxious to get back to football. It is time to get back to football. That is what everybody here wants to do.”

The players hadn’t agreed to anything.

And if the players want to be daring, they shouldn’t agree to a new deal for a few more weeks. I’m serious.

Upshaw did not cut a deal that was too good to be true. He cut a fair deal. The players take all of the real risks. There is no reason to roll back the money players earn.

Most important from a negotiating standpoint, it’s clear now the owners are more desperate for a new collective bargaining agreement than the players. Peter King wrote the NFL’s boring-as-televised-poker exhibition season is worth $800 million.

The NFL’s lone problem is greedy owners. There’s nothing else significantly wrong with the game. This lockout was a bogus waste of time.

My contention for the past year was there was no way NFL owners were going to derail the greatest reality TV show in the world (the NFL regular season). It took 30 years of rules-massaging to turn NFL quarterbacks into the biggest brands on the small screen. Charlie Sheen wishes he could drive the TV ratings Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Michael Vick generate week to week.

You don’t damage that momentum to satisfy a couple of small-market owners.

I’ve never for one minute believed there was a remote possibility of the lockout impacting the 16 regular-season games. If it does, Roger Goodell will go down as the worst commissioner in sports history. It would be an inexplicable error.

Goodell’s job is to ride Manning and Brady until their wheels fall off.

This whole lockout was a gigantic mistake. It should’ve never happened. It was unnecessary. It’s not surprising that the owners' new deal would run 10 years and there would be no opt-out clause.

No one wants to go through this again anytime soon. The owners are acknowledging that whatever they’ve gained from the lockout will probably be offset by the TV-ratings momentum they’ve sacrificed by sabotaging their offseason.

The executives at ESPN and the NFL Network must be livid about this aborted offseason. Without free agency and mini camps, there’s been little to nothing to talk about beyond labor meetings and private emails. Meetings and emails don’t drive ratings.

Now, I must admit I was wrong, too. I made the same mistake the owners did. I underestimated DeMaurice Smith and the players. I figured they’d fold and allow ownership to dictate the terms of a new deal.

I’m glad Smith and the players stayed together. I wish they’d hold out a little longer. Yes, they would run the risk of getting attacked by the media lapdogs who are as desperate for a deal as the owners. It would be worth the risks.

Now that the owners have been exposed, it would be nice to see their puppets exposed, too.