NFL Lockout: If There Isn’t A 2011 Season, Should We Blame The Owners Or Players?

Many – if not most – football fans would rather not worry about the possibility that there won’t be a 2011 NFL season until this one is done. It’s hard to blame them. The business of collective bargaining is complex and slow. It’s a helluva lot more fun to watch highlights or surf SB Nation or play Madden.

Most fans assume the players and owners will eventually make a deal. And they assume the players will just take less money – and that they should. In effect, they will side with the owners. (The same owners who make them pay for personal seat licenses, charge them $10 for a beer, threaten to move the team to get them to pay for a new stadium, and black out their games when the game is not sold out.)

The first instinct of most fans in these matters is to blame the players. They think the players should just take less money. This is totally understandable. Fans are closer to the players. It’s easy to imagine becoming a millionaire; nobody bothers imagining life as a billionaire.

Further, fans scrutinize players on a daily basis. Far more fans know the players on the field than the owners and management. They might know their own teams’ owners but not the other owners. And they certainly know a lot more about players’ salaries than owners’ profits, which is just how the owners want it.

Team owners prefer to stay out of the spotlight, utilizing what sportswriter Dave Zirin calls the Keyser Soze principle, which is based on the quote made famous in the Usual Suspects that "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist." Owners – there are a few exceptions, most notably, George Steinbrenner-- would prefer to steer clear of public scrutiny of their personal lives and financial status.

But by choosing to put an end to the agreement they previously had with players and jeopardizing the next season, they deserve a lot more public scrutiny.

My point is not that fans should necessarily side with the players; it’s to call attention to this tendency to side with the owners on this sort of thing and assert that this is not necessarily in fans’ best interests.

Here’s why – The crux of the players’ position is that team owners should open up their financial books and show how much money they’re making off the teams. This is exactly what sports fans everywhere should be calling for, as well.

Fans should be saying to owners, "If you want us to build you a new stadium, just open up your books and show us that you need us to publicly finance your private team. If you really do need our tax dollars to help you, then show us. If you have to black out the game in the stadium we helped pay for because you desperately need every seat to be filled, then open up your books and show us."

Because the truth is, sports owners have every reason to misrepresent – or at least hide – the bottom line. And some have.

Consider the case of the Florida Marlins. As Jeff Passan wrote: "Owner Jeffrey Loria and president David Samson for years have contended the Marlins break even financially, the centerpiece fiscal argument that resulted in local governments gifting them a new stadium that will cost generations of taxpayers an estimated $2.4 billion. They said they had no money to do it alone and intimated they would have to move the team without public assistance." Instead, "the team fought to conceal the $48.9 million in profits over the last two years because the revelation would have prompted county commissioners to insist the team provide more funding. Loria, an art dealer with a net worth of hundreds of millions, wouldn’t stand for that."

With the looming NFL lockout, one of the owners’ primary claims for why they need to take a bigger cut of revenues is because the cost of running stadiums has become more expensive. But they were the ones who pushed for these lavish new stadiums in the first place, often after threatening to move their teams elsewhere. And they were almost always successful in getting municipalities to help pay. Twenty-eight out of 32 NFL stadiums were publicly financed in some way.  

All that said, I’m curious to know your thoughts on who will be to blame if there is a work stoppage. I’m working for you, after all. Please comment below or email me.

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Brian Frederick is executive director of Sports Fans Coalition. You can email him at brian@sportsfanscoalition.org or follow him on Twitter here.

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