The general call for some kind of sympathy to either side in the NFL labor dispute does not a winning argument make. On one side stands a group of people who likely beat up your friends in high school, worked less in the classroom in college for the same branded degree you slaved for*, and as an adult made more money than you'll see in 10 years--and that was before they were 30. Some of them have blown most of that money already. This was ill-advised on their part, but probably also quite fun. "This platinum-plated Maybach is only going to go UP in value! Especially when I drive it to work as my primary commuter car!"
*You didn't work hard in college. Hush.
On the other side stand the NFL owners. NFL owners come in a few different categories. There are inheritance babies who fell into both wealth and the ownership of a franchise. Some are charismatic self-made moguls for whom NFL franchise ownership is just another car in the garage. To be frank, some of them are insane visionaries three wrong decisions away from living under a bridge and cooking rats on a grill made from a stolen grocery cart. One of them is Dan Snyder, and not even medical science has determined what he is.
The natural urge is to take sides. That is what fans do in all situations no matter the stakes. I remember as a five-year-old taking sides in the Falkland Islands War because I thought Harriers were awesome. I pulled for Bud Light against Bud in Bud Bowl because I felt like Bud Light was the clear underdog with its watery taste and cool, silver and blue-toned labels. I'm pulling so hard for RIchard Blais in Top Chef that I'd feign outrage if he were kicked off for serving liquid nitrogen-cooled mouse feces as his dessert plate in the finale. I have favorite raindrops on the pane, and would be happy to wager on them. I need opposition. I need to be always at war with Eurasia.
I really don't want to take a side between those who would steal your things and leave you for dead in the post-apocalypse and those who would pay others to steal your things. But I do because compulsive partisanship is a human instinct that no amount of reason can curb, so if the reins are going to be let go let's at least point this cart in the right direction before rolling downhill with emotion.
Ownership wants the players to help pay for the largesse they created, taking a hunk away from the money paid to the talent people show up to watch in the first place. It's easy to confuse yourself for the genius you hire, but to continue the cooking metaphor: take the financier of a restaurant and slap him on the grill with 10 open tickets on a busy Friday night and see what kind of food comes out on the other side.
This is rich men confusing their wallets for their penis. This is the farmer firing his prize beef cattle. This is the first class section of a 747 firing the engines for making too much noise during a flight. This is the most popular sport in America blaming its feet for insolence and cutting them off with a chainsaw to show them who's the boss in this arrangement. When it bleeds out, it will admit no regrets because those who paint themselves into corners forget that a path out ever existed.
No hearts will be broken in this process. NFL teams don't have the same maudlin relationship baseball fans have with their teams; in fact, NFL fans for the most part seem to expect the worst of their teams at all times. If you are from Buffalo, Cincinnati, or Jacksonville you cannot be blamed for this. This is also a trick question, because it assumes Jacksonville is a real place with people living in it, and not the world's largest tax shelter built from Potemkin villages and strategically placed mannequins.*
*People who say they are from Jacksonville are in fact paid actors hired to give the impression that Jacksonville is real. Do not believe them, and most especially do not smell the cloth they extend toward your face. It is a TRAP.
Even admitting this, you can't hate something and then say you don't care about it because hate, after all, is one of the most intense forms of love gone wrong. The NFL is about selling the drama to the masses as much as it is about the game, and a strike will continue to sell that drama for a while, at least.
The real canary in the coalmine will come for ownership when people don't even care to hate them anymore for failing to split $9 billion between themselves and players. Hate means you're still somewhere on the ride between love and loathing. Indifference is living death, the possible destination for the chief enterprise of a cabal of unpitiable wealthy men who will insist they are the victims of the men who made them richer than they already were.
In the meantime ESPN quietly bought the rights to Guinness Premiership Rugby at the end of December 2009. They hold at least a piece of every college football contract of any real value. They won't be caught in the post-NFL wasteland without supplies, and in time neither will the sports viewer. You will find other diversions, and ESPN and others will be happy to supply them for you. You'll find new raindrops to bet on, new arbitrary passions to feed.
The two most popular sports at one point in the 1940s in America were horse racing and boxing. Plates move, continents drift, and sports do wane in popularity. A lockout is not the end for the NFL, most likely. It will come back, and likely rebound nicely. But it will be a moment when one could drive a wedge in between America's true pasttime and the viewer, a time when for months and weeks all those eyes will be consuming will be other things, a vacuum someone, somewhere will fill. For this the NFL will be something less than what it was, or what it could have been before the owners confused themselves for the game the league happens to play.