NFL Will Get Down to Business – When No One is Watching

The NFL enters a crucial week, with March 3 being the end of the league year and March 4 presumably being football’s version of Armageddon. Owners will lock out the players, the players will go to court to decertify so they won’t be locked out, a mediator will try to keep the sides at the negotiating table and much rhetoric will be tossed around.

While it’s good for us as fans to have an idea as to what’s going on, rhetoric is part of the problem in negotiations like this. Almost without fail, it’s when we don’t hear anything from negotiations that they usually get done.

I remember the first sports work stoppage that affected me: the 1981 baseball strike. I was an usher at Busch Stadium, so my summer job went out the window when the players went on strike in June. Before the strike, and soon after it started, the sides continually had media leaks about negotiations, and how unreasonable the other side was being. About 10 days into the strike, the public kind of got tired of it. We paid attention to Wimbledon, got ready for NFL training camp and found other things to do.

Finally, when everyone stopped talking about it, after 50 days, the sides reached an agreement in the middle of a night in August. We had no idea it was coming. But they signed the deal, played the All-Star Game in Cleveland, and baseball returned.

Things worked the same way the next year when NFL players walked out. The players wanted 55 percent of the league’s revenues, and their rallying cry was “We are the game.” The union gained some traction that year, forcing the league to provide them with contract information and getting a one-time, $60 million payment for players. But it wasn’t until we stopped talking football or thinking about the negotiations that they reached an agreement. In fact, most observers thought the season couldn’t be played when the league returned in November. What they did was play a nine-game season with a Super Bowl tournament, featuring eight playoff teams from each conference.

The 1987 NFL strike had players crossing the picket line to join replacement players almost immediately. Players came crawling back that time; the last time we didn’t have football.

The 1994 baseball postseason was lost to a work stoppage. Nobody was paying attention when they reached an agreement the following spring. The same thing happened with the NHL in 2004-05. When an agreement was reached the fall after their lost season, the media and the public weren’t paying attention anymore.

That’s what will happen with the NFL. We’ll have some scrapping this week as players decertify the union and owners lock them out. We’ll talk about it for a week or so. And then, some time later, we’ll wake up one morning having forgotten about the NFL for the time being, and there will be a story that an agreement has been reached.

It’s unfortunate that it has to work this way, but the last people these billionaires and millionaires think about when they battle over all this money is us, the people who give them all that money: the fans. And it won’t be until we aren’t thinking about them that they’ll reach an agreement to start playing again.