UPDATE: The NFL and the NFLPA have agreed to a 24-hour extension before the CBA officially expires. It's still extremely unlikely that anything gets resolved by tomorrow night, but it's at least a good-faith gesture that both sides are and will continue to take the process seriously. -Michael B.-
In just a few short hours, the 2011 NFL Lockout will officially be upon us. I can't pinpoint an exact date, but speculation about a potential lockout in March of 2011 began at least two years ago. That day is now here, barring a last-minute miracle that we all know ain't happening.
But that's okay. The NFL and it's Players Association need time to get this right. There's much more at stake than just how to divide a big old chunk of change. Agreeing on how to divide annual revenues estimated to be roughly $9 billion dollars may be the primary point of contention in the negotiations, but while the two sides are at the table, they might as well address other issues of critical significance.
While I too am disappointed that the two sides didn't take this more seriously months if not years ago, I as of last night now have faith in the process. And I'm actually quite confident that when we look back at this time in NFL history several years down the road, we'll be happy that this whole mess was addressed head on, and over the course of months not days or weeks.
Why? As humans, we hate change. It scares us and makes us ugly, unconfident people. Sports fans are particularly wary of change, probably because we fear that change might alter our foundation as fans -- memories. But change almost unequivocally brings more good to more people.
But if it ain't broke, don't fix it you might be saying. The NFL clearly was structured and operated in a way that was working. But that doesn't mean it can't be a more profitable, sustainable, better regulated, and more entertaining product. As a fan, I'd be thrilled if there were an 18-game season. I'd just expect there to be bigger rosters, OTAs and mini-camps to be reduced drastically, and more sophisticated and comprehensive resources invested in researching and implementing new ideas and innovations for monitoring and preventing head trauma issues.
I'd be open to new rule changes even, like say, shortening the distance between where kickoff return coverage units begin building up steam as they head-hunt return men. Or say, installing devices in helmets that track the number of head blows during games and practices, and putting a limit on how many an individual can suffer before being done for the day.
The sound of an 18-game schedule may on the surface sound terrible, but there are ways to account for and mitigate the undeniable fact that players assume all the risk -- both with their short-term and long-term health. But with so much at stake with that type of decision, I want it to take time before they come to an agreement. Particularly in the case of concussions and head injuries, the future of the game is very much at stake. There will be litigation in the future, even if there hadn't been a lockout. But again, while they're at the table talking money, now is the right time to finally get serious about agreeing on new innovative ways to make the game safer without altering the product and brand too much. That's tough. But it can be done. And we'll all be better off -- players, owners, and even us fans.
As for things like a rookie-wage scale, the structure of free agency, guaranteed vs. non-guaranteed contracts, a salary cap -- those will all get worked out inter-connectedly in due time. Again, I would hope that they take their time. If I had all the solutions, I would be at the table mediating this deal, but I would hope that there are ideas being thrown around that might on the surface sound blasphemous. Like for example, fattening their television contract by making games 20 minutes longer, but also limiting the number of snaps a player can participate in and then requiring reserves on expanded rosters to spell the starters throughout. That may be a poor example, but it's one where the argument can be made that all sides benefit: owners make more money, more players are given an opportunity to earn an NFL living, players are not exposed to more inherent risk, and us fans are treated to more football, and a game that now requires more in-game strategy, nuance and excitement.
I'm sure I'll ramble on more about the lockout throughout the spring and early summer. But for now, with just under eight hours remaining until the hour-glass is empty for the current CBA, I say fear not. We're at a crossroads for the moment, but this isn't the first time that there's been a long and ugly struggle over how to most equitably enact progress and change. This is one of the more exciting opportunities in the history of organized professional sports. I don't care if it takes time...well, I sure as hell hope this is resolved before the end of August. But even if it takes longer than that, just don't blow the opportunity to make the game even greater for the long haul.