With the promise of a Soupey extravaganza of Babylonian proportions that only the city of Dallas and a playpen owned by Jerry Jones could justify, the fundamental football question has little to two do with which of the legendary titans contesting the big bauble will prevail. It’s all about what happens in the wee hours of March 4.
That’s when the deadline is reached and the shoe drops on what has to be the most bizarre imbroglio in the history of the American labor movement, matching the National Football League owners, a cabal of billionaires, against the National League players, a mob of millionaires. Fans of the game will find the choice of for whom to root painful even as Samuel Gompers rolls around in his grave.
The owners are already saying it will be a “work stoppage,” an empty euphemism. Because by any yardstick what they are about to impose is a lockout, which has a much uglier ring. It was the owners, after all, who lit the match to the fuse when they opted out of the collective bargaining deal negotiated five years ago with the players.
Their demand – then and now – is that the players surrender roughly one third of their share of the league’s $9 billion annual pie that they now enjoy. The players’ math may be simplistic. The owners insist it’s distorted. But as the players see it, they are being asked to take a 33 percent pay cut amounting to an annual concession to the owners of at least one billion bucks and they say there’s no way they’ll ever agree to that. At this late hour, it seems clear they need to be believed.
There are other issues, including the increasing of the regular season schedule to 18 games, which the players also deem odious. But the slicing- of-the-pie dispute is what brings the combatants to the barricades.
The owners could win the argument in a heartbeat by merely agreeing to unveil their too-long-top-secret finances. They need only open their books and offer proof of their fundamental contention that the vast majority of the franchises will go broke without a larger slice of said pie. It would be that simple. Interestingly, it is something the NBA owners, who are facing a similar crisis in the basketball dodge, have already agreed to do. But the NFL owners – and there are only a couple of exceptions – would rather go out of business than open their books. And they wonder why so many of us remain so skeptical.
They’ve had three years to settle this mess and haven’t moved an inch, making it reasonable to assume that what they couldn’t accomplish in three years won’t get done in four weeks. So say goodbye to your beloved pastime, America, right after those legendary titans, the Packers and Steelers, do their thing and brace yourselves for the mother of ultimate gridiron battles. Kickoff is at 12:01 the morning of 4 March 2011. It should make Soupey XLV look like a chummy little round of patty cake.
In the NHL, it’s concussions
Meanwhile over in the National Hockey League where there has been a certain intimacy with such awkward issues as lockouts, the mounting incidence of concussions begins to take on every bit as much urgency. When a Mark Savard gets his bell rung once too often, clearly jeopardizing his career, the league’s chief disciplinarian can get away with questioning the poor fellow’s manhood. But when it happens to Sidney Crosby, the issue becomes a crisis.
Crosby, the wunderkind of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is the league’s poster boy. Not since the Great Gretzky was in full flower has the NHL been so invested in a single player. With an unassumingly boyish air and genuine modesty gracing his superior skills, Crosby is perfect for the role. The League wants you to look at Sid the Kid and be charmed by the game. But it doesn’t work when the Kid gets run over twice in one week by runaway skating freight trains bearing sticks at high port.
It was bad timing for it to happen just before the All-Star weekend. Crosby is plainly rankled by the questionable hits in consecutive games that – as usual – went lightly reprimanded. First, Washington’s David Steckel blindsided him with a shot to the head, then he got pitched headfirst into the boards by Tampa’s Victor Hedman. The sum total of the penalties awarded for the two clear infractions was two minutes. Well within his rights, Crosby made an obvious statement by declining to attend the all-star festivities merely to serve in the artificial role of ambassador of hockey good will. Good for him. There are limits to what ought to be demanded, even of a poster boy.
In yet another glittering example of how little he knows about the game he runs, NHL Czar Gary Bettman argues that the rash of concussions mainly results from “accidental and inadvertent contact.” Try to convince Savard that the bushwhacking that probably ruined his career last spring was “inadvertent.”
There were 77 players sidelined by documented concussions last season. So far this season there have been 43, although that number is said to be unofficial. Tell that to the unlucky 43. Should young Mr. Crosby become a long-term member of this unhappy lodge, watch for Mr. Bettman to change his tune on this complex issue. Mighty fast!
Did schedule hurt Patriots?
Every excuse under the sun has been offered for the Patriots’ abrupt exit from the NFL playoffs. But one of the better reasons may be one of the simplest. In retrospect, the quirks of the schedule did them precious little good.
After that now imponderable 45-3 pasting they laid on the Jets the first weekend in December, they basically coasted for more than a month. With the last games of the regular season being laughers against teams that had quit, followed by a bye in the first round of the playoffs, they arrived for the big showdown with the Jets totally flat. After biding their time for a month, they had no edge left.
How to end the grueling ordeal of the regular season after you’ve clinched a playoff berth is something of an art form in this brutal game. Do you ease up and let the lads lick their wounds and catch their breath or do you push them hell bent for election to the very last gasp? Increasingly clear is the fact that a bye in the playoffs is a dubious blessing.
Clear, too, is the fact that teams required to fight tooth and nail for survival to the regular-season wire tend to be stronger and sharper in the post-season, no matter how many wounds may be inflicted en route. Two such fine examples this year are the Packers and the Steelers.
A note on Baseball’s Hall picks
Lastly, a belated comment on this year’s Hall of Fame proceedings.
It is hard to quibble with the election of Roberto Alomar, his well-documented human flaws notwithstanding. He was the most highly skilled middle infielder of his generation. However, that so many electors seem to feel it was an outrage that Alomar was made to wait a year is a bit hard to swallow. If Joe DiMaggio could be rebuffed his first year of eligibility, it’s no insult to Mr. Alomar and he would be well advised to keep that in mind.
There’s surely no argument with Bert Blyleven, either, although he should be seen as a classic border-line member. As one who espouses a more open policy on the Hall, I have no problem with that. If the membership of the hallowed lodge were doubled overnight, it wouldn’t bother me. Degrees of excellence are easy enough to judge. Just because they are both enshrined doesn’t make Blyleven the equal of Walter Johnson.
But this fact, too, should be recognized: If Bert Blyleven deserves to hang his hat in Cooperstown then so do Jim Kaat, Wes Ferrell, Tommy John, and Jack Morris. For all four were superior.