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Owners are villains in NFL labor fight

NFL players, more than any other athletes, deserve to win a labor war in which their lives are disregarded in favor of the bottom line.

March 12, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers was fined $75,000 for this hit on Cleveland's Mohamed Massaquoi ? and within hours the NFL was selling photos of that hit.
James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers was fined $75,000 for this hit… (Don Wright / Associated…)

The NFL season began with the nauseating sight of Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Stewart Bradley standing up, wobbling, then collapsing after a head injury … before returning to the game four plays later.

The NFL season ended with the sickening visual of a former Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson putting a bullet in his chest — instead of his head — so doctors could study the effects of football on his intact, addled brain.

It was a year in which James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers was fined $75,000 for a hard hit on Cleveland's Mohamed Massaquoi … and within hours the NFL was selling photos of that hit.

It was a year in which Seattle's John Carlson suffered a concussion when he landed on a frozen patch of Chicago's Soldier Field sidelines, where there are no underground heating coils.

Season-ending injuries increased more than 10%, the game's most decorated quarterback ended his career in a crumpled heap, and I can't remember the last time a player was ejected for an illegal hit.

Yet it is the NFL owners who want more guarantees? It is the NFL owners who want to be paid more for their risk?

In terms of perception, the current NFL labor dispute is the most one-sided fight since good first climbed into the ring with evil. Cheering for the owners is like cheering for the IRS, cable companies and Charlie Sheen. Cheering for the owners is like watching a televised police pursuit and cheering for the guy in the Escalade.

In entertaining more people in this country than any other sporting league, the NFL robs its players of their bodies and sometimes even their minds, and now its owners want to rob them of some of their money?

By essentially shutting down their $9.3-billion game this week, the NFL owners are suffering from severe brain cramps requiring an intravenous drip of common sense.

If you're like me, you don't have the patience to wade through all minutia of a sports labor mess, but in this case, the NFL owners' foolishness is as tangible as the "Dumb and Dumber" moment involving frozen snot.

Gross Fact 1: Even though their players endure the worst working conditions of any major pro athlete — shortest career spans and non-guaranteed contracts — the owners are asking them for a reported extra $325 million cut of the revenue. The players are wondering, why change anything?

Gross Fact 2: Even though their players' bodies are decimated by a 16-game schedule, the owners are asking them to increase to an 18-game schedule in three years. The players are wondering, are they really trying to kill us?

Gross Fact 3: Even though a study showed that 78% of NFL players are either bankrupt, divorced or unemployed within two years after the end of their career, the owners are still woefully inadequate in their contributions to the health of former players. The broken-down players are forced to shuffle and stagger into Super Bowl news conferences to plead for the owners to fulfill their moral obligation.

Incidentally, I've never been a players' union guy. I've always believed the owners are the ones taking the biggest risk, and therefore should be entitled to the greatest rewards.

I believe the baseball union has been the single biggest factor in the erosion of the game's popularity, from the protection of steroid cheats to the joke that has become arbitration and free agency. I believe the basketball union … why do they even have a basketball union? The NBA players are highest paid, most pampered athletes in this country. They need bargaining protection like LeBron James needs another can of talcum powder.

But the NFLPA is not a typical players' union. It is not fighting to get rich, it is fighting to break even. The players aren't fighting for their ego, they're fighting for their health.

The owners' stance is so obviously arrogantly reckless that even the guy sitting next to you screaming about a lazy receiver not being worth $1 million is probably on the players' side. In a recent Bloomberg poll, 43% of respondents sided with the players while only 20% sided with the owners. The other 37% were unsure or didn't care but, just wait, with every wealthy owner's whacked-out sound bite, the undecided will decide.

Roger Goodell is a decent man and good commissioner, but he's running to the wrong end zone if he thinks this shutdown won't cause severe collateral damage to the national trust in his game.

Replacement players? They worked in the days before the Bowl Championship Series turned college football into our nation's No. 2 sport. They won't work anymore. Nobody is going to watch a meaningless pro game of scrubs when every college football weekend is a playoff weekend.

Portraying the current players as greedy and entitled? Not when Super Bowl most valuable player Aaron Rodgers played the game within five months of suffering two concussions, literally risking his life for a Green Bay Packers team that made the league feel warm and fuzzy.

The owners can't win here. We don't understand their wealth. We don't accept their extravagance. We simply cannot abide their greed.

We may boo and scream and deride the players, but, more than with any other athlete, we also understand that their risks are our risks.

Few of us have guaranteed contracts. All of us desire safety and security. Everyone seemingly fears an aging process that will leave us broken and confused.

In understanding the players, the NFL owners would be understanding their fans. In bullying them, it feels as if they are bullying the rest of us too.

Before bleeding more from a sport that has already taken so much, the owners need to listen to the words of Tregg Duerson, son of Dave Duerson, when talking to the New York Times about his father's legacy.

"I just wish he had played baseball," he said.

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