Professional football, the most popular American sport, appears to be riding high.
Television ratings are at an all-time high, with four networks and the National Football League's own innovative network flourishing. Competition is keener than ever: The season is three-quarters over and more than one-third of the teams still are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. And the stars have never been greater; two of the half-dozen greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, are at the peaks of their careers, and there are several not far behind.
At the top of the heap at home, the NFL has set its sights across the pond. After drawing big crowds for games in London, pro football sees that as a new location in the future.
Dig a little below this dazzling picture and there are tensions that threaten to roil the $8 billion-a-year business: labor unrest, perhaps leading to a lockout of players by the owners next season; an alarming level of physical violence; and sluggish attendance at some games.
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Most serious is the potential impasse between the players' union and the teams over the current contract, which expires March 3. The owners appear intent on a lockout if the players' association doesn't agree to a deal. DeMaurice Smith, the new executive director of the National Football League Players Association, says such a shutdown of the football season, which he believes would drain more than $4 billion from the U.S. economy, appears a "near certainty."
The financial situation facing many of the 32 teams, the owners say, has soured, impairing the construction of new stadiums and other improvements for the fans. Thus, they say they can no longer afford to give 60 percent of the revenue to the players.
The union says the privately owned teams refuse to disclose their financial data — the one publicly owned team, the Green Bay Packers, in the smallest city in the league, continues to show a healthy profit — that their health care coverage is a disgrace for an injury-prone profession that affords athletes an average tenure of only 3 1/2 years, and that the players actually get only about half the revenue.
One solution the owners want is to expand the number of regular season games to 18 from 16. Players, fearing more injuries, are resisting. The union suggests that would only be possible with other concessions, such as more weeks off and additions to rosters. There have been two major lockouts before, in 1982 and 1987. The stakes are bigger this time, and the owners face a tougher adversary in Smith.
The owners desire a divide-and-conquer strategy, with the well-known players and fan favorites resisting a strike. Smith, however, has shrewdly lined up visible support from superstars. Brady is the New England Patriots' team representative; Drew Brees, the quarterback who led the New Orleans Saints to the Super Bowl last season, is on the union's executive committee; and Manning of the Indianapolis Colts has voiced strong support for the union.
Smith and his players have another weapon: the threat to decertify. The 32 NFL teams years ago were granted an antitrust exemption. If the union decertifies, the individual players would no longer be bound by collective-bargaining agreements and the NFL could be open to antitrust lawsuits. The sort of anti-competitive legal action that has succeeded in professional sports in recent decades could place the teams in financial peril.
NFL owners such as the Patriots' Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys see themselves as individualistic, tough capitalists. In reality, the NFL is a semi-socialistic enterprise. The teams equally share all the sizable national television revenue and agree to salary caps, and the squads with the worst records get to draft the best college players.
The owners have tremendous leverage in these negotiations, with $4 billion a year in television contracts, which are paid out even if a lockout or strike prevents games from being played. The union and players' leverage is the public; Brady is more popular than Kraft.
Given the huge popularity of the NFL, it's hard to imagine that an impasse wouldn't throw the dispute into the political arena. Both sides already have spoken to the White House and are lobbying Congress.
The conventional wisdom is that the new Republican House is good news for the owners and the Obama White House would be more empathetic to the players. Yet some owners believe that a White House preoccupied with war, a struggling economy and daily shots from congressional opponents doesn't need a football strike, which would fuel more anger among Americans.
On the other side, the union realizes the sport is particularly popular among Republican constituents, especially white males. Moreover, they see a potential ally in Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who will take over as head of the House oversight and investigations committee in January.
Another threat to pro football's popularity may be increased violence and long-term injury. Very few medical specialists not on an NFL payroll doubt the huge risks associated with the game. Studies suggest football veterans face far higher incidences of Alzheimer's and other brain damage.
As players get faster, stronger and larger, violent collisions are more lethal. There are now more than 400 players in the league who weigh 300 pounds and above; 30 years ago there were three.
After years of denial, the league is now penalizing brutal hits and researching more long-term chronic conditions. There is a question, however, about how much of the game's appeal rests on the violent clash of gladiators.
A final concern is slumping attendance in some of the smaller markets. That may be attributable to the economy. Demand remains high; on Sundays, most stadiums are sold out.
Still, the league would be playing a dangerous game if it tries to bluff the players and the union. The lessons from previous labor ruptures in professional sports is that if there is an immediate and real backlash, fans sour and find alternative activities.
That might impair the lucrative socialism these capitalists enjoy.