Football is back

On the surface, they rang in another NFL season on a joyous note with the familiar signs of prosperity flourishing quite as usual. All the parks were full and TV ratings sizzled while pundits raved and enthusiasm approached gale force as, true to form, a snappy card of season-opening games played out with the usual fervor and brilliance.

But the ecstasy was merely on the surface; every last boundless speck of it.

For sounding as well was the countdown to potential disaster for the strongest, richest, most successful and, yes, most arrogant (that too, above all) sporting confederation in all of Christendom.

The clock is running. In six months, the deadline rears for the epic pro football labor showdown that's been brewing for a quarter of a century. Expiring next March come hell or high water is the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that governs relations between the 32 owners of National Football League franchises -- who collectively form the last legally sanctioned cartel of industrial moguls allowed to do pretty much as it pleases in this country -- and said owners' labor force -- which is well paid but held in near total bondage.

It's a clash that could be averted. Theoretically, a new deal could be struck tomorrow. But you'll have a hard time finding anyone who will take that bet and, as you know, in the NFL it's all about the odds.

When the CBA runs out you can expect the owners to lock out the players whereupon it is believed the players' union (NFLPA) will promptly decertify, then sue the League charging violations of the anti-trust laws. If that happens, it will be the mother of all sporting courtroom rumbles with implications for all the games and all the leagues certain to be humongous. Do you think it is just the football folks who are quivering over this prospect? Wrong again!

It is against this convoluted backdrop that another merry NFL Season launches. Like the cowboy in the jingle bellows in his Sunbelt twang every Monday night, "Are you ready for some football?"

Thus far this looming crisis with all of its heavyweight historical potential has been lightly reported. The daily sports pages do a sketchy job on such stuff, much preferring to rest happily in sweet denial. But so far that hasn't mattered because there's been nothing to report. Since the dimensions of the mess became evident late last season there have been exactly three brief bargaining sessions of utterly no consequence between the union and the owners. Why? Because that's the dumb way they always do these things.

Which is not to suggest the two sides have been dithering away the time. The owners, who precipitated the showdown by opting out of the old CBA two years earlier than was necessary, have made a number of changes in their modus operandi mainly at the expense of the lower revenue franchises. Most importantly, they have also negotiated a hefty lockout insurance pact with the television networks which means they will still collect their hefty broadcasting fees even if they don't have any games to broadcast. What a Great Country!

Scariest signal of all though may be the fact that the chap the owners imported to quarterback their negotiations is Bob Batterman who handled the NHL's brutally cantankerous talks in their infamous labor fiasco resulting in the virtual demolition of the 2004-2005 professional hockey season. It seems a faintly crazy thing to do. Were there no other union-busting paladins out there the owners might have enlisted who might have brought slightly less ominous baggage and overtones to the table?

Having smartened up some over the years and now being represented by a union steward in the young and fiery DeMaurice Smith who actually knows what he's doing, the players fully recognize the mess they are in and seem well prepared. They appear resigned to the inevitability of a lockout. Already underway is preparation for decertification, a complicated legal maneuver that would make it easier for them to counterattack with a lawsuit. First team to vote on that was the Saints prior to the league's season opener. The vote, reportedly, was unanimously in favor. There have been other signs of the players' mounting anger and growing solidification. They'll not be the pushovers they've been in the past; all of which you may feel free to further regard as "ominous."

It is, of course, all about money. NFL earnings are said to have exceeded eight billion bucks last season. Not a single team lost a dime and every franchise continued to appreciate in value to the point where all 32 are comfortably listed in Forbes Magazine's recent list of the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the entire world. Consider that only a handful of baseball franchises made that list. Still, the NFL owners maintain they can no longer allocate 60 percent of revenues to the players and propose to slash it. That's not the only issue on the table but it's far and away the biggest. No surprise there.

But interestingly some of the sharpest points of difference are as much between the owners themselves as they are between the owners and players. It's what makes this potential fiasco very different as well as especially complex and volatile.

Naturally, the football players would love to get rid of the salary cap. Breathes there not an athlete in the entire universe who wouldn't die for the deal the baseball players have. But there are NFL owners -- some, but not all -- who would also like to kill the cap and they are, inevitably, the fat cats on the bloc led by such as Dallas' Jerry Jones and Washington's Daniel Snyder. And if you think the New York Yankees are able to run wild with their spending because they are not restrained by a salary cap just imagine the outrages the even more deep-pocketed and manic Mr. Jones might conjure.

Major market NFL owners want more control over all sources of revenue, including broadcasting, merchandising, licensing, expansion, and corporate sponsorship dough. As you know, all those revenue streams are now pooled with the profits -- and they are huge --divided equally among all the franchises in a laudably democratic spirit without regard for size, influence, or achievement.

So, if they succeed, it would signal the end of the "share the wealth among the band of brothers" philosophy that has governed the NFL since its earliest days and which -- in the opinion of most students of the subject -- has mainly accounted for the NFL's remarkable success and prosperity. Are the darn fools about to shoot themselves in the foot? It sure looks that way.

Meanwhile the NFL season will bear on and in the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, much of this festering acrimony just beneath the surface will be studiously ignored.

The Patriots are off to a nice start. But then the Bengals, the NFL's pre-eminent penal colony, are hardly an adequate test of a team's character. Likely we will have to endure many more contract lamentations from Randy Moss before he is mercifully jettisoned. Randy's antics are almost sufficient inspiration to root for the owners in the forthcoming march to the barricades. But not quite.

Still we can remain grateful that Tom Brady's sufferings have been redeemed by that nice new four-year $72 million pact he was able to squeeze out of the Krafts who at least were smart enough to recognize they'd been utterly out-maneuvered in the public relations battle that in the end found most all of the local media lined up adoringly behind Sir Galahad, the quarterback. Mr. Brady played it brilliantly. Our congratulations, Sir. Mr. Moss, on the other hand, is not playing it brilliantly. So he will suffer accordingly.

It is sustained by such trivia that you may happily pass through the regular season. But keep in mind that the real season may begin next March.

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