The sad thing about the NFL Players Association's decertification and the courtroom tempests that are sure to follow is there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the most lucrative sports league in the world.
Sure, NFL players don't have guaranteed contracts, and the league and union have never done enough to provide for its former stars who took beatings on the field as the sport's popularity blossomed. But these are not issues at the heart of the dispute between the NFL and the players' union. The players have long ceded the hammer to the league on contract issues with their refusals to stick together on strikes. As one former player rep once told me 10 years ago: "I've got a family. If we had a strike I would seriously consider crossing [the picket line]."
The tradeoff was a general period of peace in which the bonuses paid to players steadily rose and the owners got richer too with sweetheart stadium deals and television contracts too fantastic to be true. Aside from the possible addition of a rookie wage scale that all of America probably believes should be implemented, there is little else in the negotiations that changes the way the NFL is run. Regardless of what comes out of court rulings in the next few months, the players will still get big bonuses without guaranteed contracts and the owners will continue to get rich.
In the end, the only reason to potentially blow up the season was hubris. Once more, the arrogance of the NFL's owners rose with their refusal to completely open their books. And the union, which has always operated more like a big business than a benevolent representative of the players' interests, walked away in a snit.
It is for this we might not have football this year.
Aside from the player safety issue surrounding the 18-game season discussion, there is no long-term structural good that was going to come from these labor negotiations. The primary issue was always how two parties could split $1 billion in particular of the overall $9 billion pie. And while $1 billion is an awful lot of money, the math should not have been difficult in a league where so many people are getting rich.
What's going on in the NFL is nothing like what happened six years ago in the NHL where the union fought the creation of a salary cap or in Major League Baseball's many strikes where the union repeatedly showed its resolve. In a few months the NBA will embark upon a labor dispute that will challenge the framework of the entire league. As one team executive recently said: "[NBA commissioner] David Stern is going to break the players and then when he's broken them he's going to break them some more."
The NFL does not face such issues. The union long ago lost the war when it agreed to a hard salary cap – anything it does now is about proving to the players that it can keep delivering a few more dollars each season. And commissioner Roger Goodell has the respect of his owners, so he doesn't need to prove himself the way Stern must to his uneasy constituency.
Again and again NFL executives have said in the past few months they would be shocked if a deal didn't get done given the fact that the NFL is a league in which everyone is doing well financially. But in recent weeks it became clear that old turf was being protected for seemingly no good reason. After a time it appeared the NFLPA's executive director DeMaurice Smith had made such a deal about seeing the owners' financial information that anything which didn't include a full combing of every team's books would be a humiliating defeat for him.
Of course it is clear to see why the NFLPA would want to examine the teams' records. As with all professional sports operations, there is certain to be decent cash flow to even the poorest of clubs and examples of the nepotism that is always so rife in such organizations. The release of several baseball teams' books to the website Deadspin was devastating in its accounting of opulence even as those teams cried poverty.
Still, there is little for NFL teams to lose in opening their records. A few years ago the owner of one of the league's more financially-challenged teams told me "teams don't generate that much revenue from year-to-year, you make your money when you sell your franchise."
The owner begged his name not be used for the obvious reason of angering his brethren, but his point was clear: In the lucrative NFL, with its hard salary cap, every team – regardless of relative wealth – could be sold for something close to $1 billion (higher revenue-generating teams like the Redskins and Eagles for even more). And with movements looming at the end of this labor deal to get a team in Los Angeles and expand the game's exposure internationally, the television deals are only going to get bigger and franchise values are only going to rise.
Ultimately, the harm of letting the union see each team's books is smaller than the nuclear option everyone now faces, with the months of suits and counter suits and the threat of a work stoppage.
But that was never the issue here. They're blowing everything up at a time when there's still so much money to be made.
What else could it be?
And the season sits in jeopardy.