There are 31 owners of NFL teams. How many can you name without looking them up? Would you miss any of them if they were gone? The NFL owners should be grateful for the opportunity to make millions of dollars in this business. They make no personal sacrifice for this gain. “Oh, but they risk their own money to fund the teams!” you could say. But let’s be realistic: owning an NFL team essentially guarantees profit. But the owners are not grateful, instead they are ornery. They are placing money above the game. I think they need to be reminded of their place, because they are replaceable.
The NFLPA decertified earlier this month. While avoiding an esoteric discussion of the myriad effects of this mostly legal move, I want to focus on one effect in particular. If the NFL owners lock the players out, the players will be allowed to seek work with teams in other leagues. Faced with the choice of rooting for an NFL team with no players, and say, a Canadian Football League team with NFL talent, I’ll be watching the CFL, thank you very much. Dissolving the NFL will leave a football power void, but I am certain there will be plenty of money looking to fill that void by creating a new football landscape.
If this happens, we as fans will lose certain aspects that we take for granted. The league’s history is an important ingredient contributing to the glory of the NFL. It provides a context–who is Brett Favre without the history of the Packers franchise before him? How can you appreciate the success of the Steelers without the failure of the Lions to contrast it with?
Why should I care? I’ve been a Redskins fan for as long as I’ve been a fan of football. I root for the players, I root for the laundry, I root for the name of the team. My first football memories are of watching the Redskins on TV when I was growing up in Washington D.C. I remember falling asleep after Super Bowl XXVI, dreaming replays of deep bombs from Mark Rypien to Art Monk and Gary Clark. My parents weren’t very big fans, but still I remember watching the team in the years before and after the super bowl, my child’s mind understanding that somehow this was all significant. I haven’t lived in D.C. for 19 years, but that’s the thing about being a football fan: when you become emotionally attached to a team, you’re attached to them for life. But there are problems that come with that–rooting for Daniel Snyder’s Redskins has been embarrassing more often than it’s been exciting. I am obliged to root for a team I actually kind of hate. I see this labor dispute as an opportunity to change that.
I am a Redskins fan because my first football memories are of them. I was lucky to grow up with a hometown team that could win. If you didn’t have a local team, you picked whoever was winning at the time, whoever was available on TV. There are millions of Steeler fans across the country who would struggle to tell you what state Pittsburgh is in. Perhaps a new football landscape will provide the opportunity for all of us to choose a new team more wisely. Perhaps I will be able to root for a team closer to my new home in Colorado, and I will be able to watch my team’s games on local broadcast television, rather than having to go to a sports bar every Sunday to see them play. It will take time to get used to, but I expect this emotional tumult to be temporary, since history itself can be bought and sold, as it was when the owners of the Browns moved the team to Baltimore, but left the Browns name and history in Cleveland. After a year or two of post-NFL football, history will come cheap to the new owners, as the old ones will want to cut their losses and get whatever they can for it. We already know that to them money is more important than football.
As the labor strife continues, my intensity of hatred toward the owners grows. The owners have no bargaining position at all, as far as I can understand. Nobody goes to a stadium on a Sunday to see the owners. There is always another multimillionaire willing to front the capital to get a league off the ground (there are more than 400 billionaires in the US alone). We can find new Jerry Richardsons, there are literally hundreds of men with similar assets, but we cannot expect to find new Adrian Petersons or Larry Fitzgeralds. The players are not replaceable. The owners are.
The owners have been working in bad faith and in fact illegally all along, as the TV contract lawsuit showed. The very crux of the labor disagreement is the owners’ claim that they don’t make enough money, yet they left money on the table by agreeing to below-market-value TV contracts. That doesn’t sound like the actions of someone who isn’t making enough money. (Why would they agree to unfavorable TV contracts? The contracts guarantee the owners will get paid TV money in 2011 whether there is a 2011 season or not; this suggests that they were planning on locking out the players all along. Not exactly what I would call “good faith.”) Their greed has been in part enabled by us, the fans. City after city has passed bills to pay for the construction of new stadiums for teams to play in. Do the taxpayers see any of the profit the teams make, playing in publicly financed stadiums? Nope, the owners do! They are used to getting what they want, and we haven’t tried to stop them.
The owners have been working in bad faith all along. Leading up to the negotiations, the owners have been making up “points of contention” (18 game schedule, HGH testing, etc) they don’t actually care about, and at the negotiation table they are more than ready to concede these falsely fabricated sticking points to make it look like they are giving ground like good little negotiators, while slyly refusing to budge on the one issue they do care about: how to split up the money. I for one don’t appreciate this little game.
I love the game of football, especially the NFL. I love that with only 16 games per year, I can realistically expect to watch every play my favorite team runs. I love the characters involved in the game, from the flamboyant and hilarious Chad Ocho Cinco (the second-most influential Twitter user in the world), to the secretive genius Bill Belichick, the comically inept Matt Millen, even to the ghetto but surprisingly articulate Lawrence Taylor. What other sport dares to base franchises in Green Bay, Wisconson, or Buffalo, New York? The NFL is the number one sports league in the Americas by any measure, and I blame the owners greed for money if we don’t have football in 2011. If we lose a season, or even part of one, the game’s prestige may never recover (see: hockey).
Football can make me laugh. Football can make me raise my eyebrows, and say, “wow. That was cool.” Football can make me facepalm in endless frustration. Football can make me stand up and cheer with unrestrained joy.
For almost a century, baseball was America’s Game. Baseball plays well on the radio. There is usually no more than one thing happening at a time in baseball, and an announcer can easily describe the action. Even in basketball, the supposed five on five is more often dominated by one player, for good (LeBron, Kobe) or for ill (Stephon Marbury, Allen Iverson). Football is a uniquely visual sport, and could never have succeeded like it has without a television in every household. In football, every play is orchestrated chaos, 22 individual players with unique assignments, 11 individual battles won or lost, chaos coalescing into a play. Most fans just follow the brown ovoid ball, which itself holds unpredictable chaos every time it’s allowed to bounce. I like to watch each play several times, because seemingly subtle battles away from the ball often determine the outcome of the play. No announcer can take it all in in real-time. Football is a TV sport. More than that it’s a DVR sport. No other sport is as ready to embrace technology and change as football is. Chuck Klosterman points out in this exquisite essay that because football is so beloved by conservatives many assume it is itself conservative, it is actually the most dynamic sport in the world. It was Richard Nixon’s favorite sport, but it was Hunter Thompson’s favorite sport as well.
Football will go on. Fans need it; I need it. Some of the NFL’s team owners are probably good people, and the current ranks of owners have as much diversity and flair as the NFL itself. For every plastic-enhanced Jerry Jones, there’s a Jim Isray of the Indianapolis Colts. Isray is a famous Jack Kerouac fan; he owns the original scroll On the Road was typed on and was kind enough to loan it out to libraries across the country so fans like me could see it in person, which I did in Denver in 2007. For every logical, calculating self-made man like Paul Allen, there is a senile madman like Al Davis. For every cheapskate like Ralph Wilson, there is a moneyshitter like Dan Snyder. For every nepotist like Mike Brown, there is a football-first guy like Dan Rooney. I will miss the good ones, most especially Isray, but I would gladly dump every one of them if that’s what’s best for football.
Football also needs to be changed; it has a uniquely dark side. The game is played by the biggest, strongest, and fastest genetic freaks the human race can supply. In 1905, players routinely died on the field due to their injuries. President Theodore Roosevelt personally demanded that the rules be changed, and in 1906 the forward pass was born. I say it wasn’t enough. Even today, routine tackles can be so violent that players sometimes suffer spectacular horrific injuries–remember Joe Theisman?–every play has the potential to be someone’s personal 9/11. In an instant or in aggregate, the forces of the game are more than the human body can withstand. It’s not uncommon for veterans to be crippled by the time they’re 50. We are only beginning to understand the effect the game has on the brain, and the sport is moving too slow to change in ways that would make it safer. These are serious problems, and I’m afraid the owners aren’t doing much of anything to address the fact that a retired player’s annual health insurance premium often costs more than the average American earns in a year. Some players walk away from their careers healthy and well-compensated; too many hardly walk away at all. The players sacrifice their bodies, and too often the majority of their adult loves to play the game. They deserve to be compensated. The owners, in comparison, sacrifice nearly NOTHING. They don’t even pay for the stadiums their teams play in. Therefore, the owners deserve almost nothing in return.
There is something special about this sport that I love, something that the players love enough to sacrifice everything for a chance to play it. I hate to see a game of such dark beauty threatened by a small group of greedy owners. What do they sacrifice? Money? Hah! A trifle! They add no beauty to the game, they bring no unique talents. We do not need them, and maybe they need to be reminded of this fact. I am a fan of the players. The owners are losers, yes, but the real losers are the fans, if we are deprived of a season in 2011. Football must go on. The players want to play. If the owners won’t let them, we must find new owners a.k.a. faceless sources of capital, and of that, there will be plenty.