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Once upon a time there was a horrible plague threatening the National Football League. It was called free agency, and owners scratched and clawed with the NFL Players Association to keep this pox from ruining their beloved game, even going to federal court in 1992 to inoculate themselves. "What we'll end up having is no middle class," the late, well-respected New York Giants general manager George Young said of free agency. "We'll have 'haves' and 'have-nots.'" But in 1993 the NFL was finally forced to accept free agency and reached a landmark agreement with the NFLPA that made it available to players with four years in the league.
Since then competitive balance--and the league--has flourished. Nineteen of the NFL's 32 teams have made the Super Bowl in the past 13 years. The Packers went twice, in part because they made the greatest signing in the free-agent era--Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White, who chose Green Bay (pop. 101,000) over big-market San Francisco, Washington and Dallas. Average attendance in the league is up 5,800 per game since 1992. And check out the Harris polls that asked 1,900 Americans in 1993 and 2005 which sport was their favorite. In '93 pro football was first with 24% and baseball second with 18%. In 2005 football was first with 33% and baseball second with 14%.
My point: Fans don't give two flips if owners and players can't find some way to divide their billions and extend their current labor deal this week. Ditto on whether the salary cap goes away. Fans absolutely love pro football and don't want to be bothered with the details.
After a week of negotiations, two extensions of the deadline for a new deal--the latest drop-dead date was Thursday--and a six-day delay in the start of the free-agency period, commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the NFL's 32 owners were to meet in Dallas on Tuesday to consider the players' latest proposal. (It called for the players to be guaranteed 59.5% of league revenue in salary and increased revenue sharing among teams.) Absent a new deal, teams will have a salary cap of $94.5 million this season, about $10 to $15 million less than the new deal would call for. What's more, failed negotiations will push the league closer to playing without a salary cap in 2007, the final year of the current deal. Beyond that? The future would be murky, but union head Gene Upshaw says it probably wouldn't include a salary cap.
But that doesn't mean the sky is falling. Just as the fear that free agency would ruin the sport proved unfounded, so too is the idea that an NFL without a salary cap would be less competitive. Yes, the Redskins and their ATM of a stadium, FedEx Field--which has boosted owner Daniel Snyder's gross revenues to more than $300 million per year--would have an advantage. But there are enough safeguards to ensure that a George Steinbrenner couldn't take over the NFL by buying up any warm-blooded superstar.
Why? If the Redskins needed a quarterback, they'd still have to develop one (like the lesser-revenue teams) or pay a ransom for one. And few big-name QBs reach the free market because most are signed to long-term deals. Plus, the disparity between the NFL's rich and less-rich isn't nearly what it is in, say, baseball. As one NFL owner said last week, "No matter what happens with this dispute, I don't think Dan Snyder can become Steinbrenner. The low-money teams will still have too much money for them to let all of their best players go." Consider this: Without further revenue sharing, NFL teams will still pool 80% of all football revenue through 2007. This is a game on the edge of a cliff? Nonsense.
Still, the dispute has shown some cracks within ownership--primarily between big-market owners and their small-market brethren--that won't be patched over. Dallas owner Jerry Jones, for one, thinks it's absurd that he should share money from the naming rights for his new stadium, to open in 2009, with Cincinnati's Mike Brown, who got zilch for his naming rights because he dubbed it Paul Brown Stadium, after his dad, the club's founder.
There is also widespread distrust of Snyder, even among high-revenue owners, because they don't think he worked his way up the NFL ladder. Snyder bought the Redskins and his stadium in 1999 and quickly turned both into cash cows. Contrast that to New England's Bob Kraft, who joined the league in 1994, when the Patriots ranked last among 28 teams in revenue; he built Gillette Stadium with mostly private money and never has warmed to being placed in Snyder's clique among owners.
Whatever happens with these negotiations, two things are certain: The NFL will be America's biggest league for a long time ... and the men who rule the game won't see eye to eye on very much. But that won't matter. America is always going to be ready for some football.