Despite the seemingly endless vacuum of false optimism and exaggerated pessimism gripping professional football in the weeks and months since the Draft, the NFL lockout will, in fact, end. It may even happen Friday.
NFL owners stand to lose $700 million if the lockout continues through the middle of next week, and NFL players stand to lose millions, themselves, should things spill over into the regular season. Both sides have ample motivation to make this work, and the professional legacies of the two men in charge (DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell) depend on getting a deal done. So, it'll happen.
But none of that changes what the NFL did on Thursday, and aside from the principals in charge, the legacy of the lockout itself will be the NFL's towering corporate hubris, finally rendered transparent. The men in charge of "America's Game" don't just think the players are stupid, they think America's stupid.
This was always obvious, of course. Whether the league is pandering to patriotism with a say, a casual pregame reading of the Declaration of the Independence (yep, that happened), or doling out massive fines the minute the public decides to be worried about concussions. Or, borrowing a page from the cigarette industry's playbook, quietly downplaying the effects of said concussions, pretending we can't connect the dots between John Mackey's 10-year football career and the 10-year battle with "frontal temporal dementia" that killed him earlier this month.
We're pretty much okay with all this, though. Because there's no such thing as too much patriotism, we don't really care if James Harrison gets fined $80,000, and we all know concussions are dangerous, but we still don't have a good solution, so it's tough to get sanctimonious. We love football too much to let these things ruin it for us.
Where the lockout's changed things is that there's no football to distract us from the NFL. Absent big plays, good games, and great stories--absent the players, basically--we're just left to watch this corporate mess unfold. We're left with days like Thursday, when the NFL owners called a press conference to announce they'd unanimously approved a collective bargaining agreement the players hadn't even seen.
"We will be prepared to open the training facilities beginning on Saturday, this Saturday." Roger Goodell told us with a smile. "Obviously you know that we're all under a time constraint. That's one of the reasons we worked to get this agreement completed tonight."
What he failed to mention was that the players hadn't seen the agreement the owners approved, and it included a number of parameters that the two sides had never discussed. As DeMaurice Smith clarified in an e-mail later in the day, "As you may have heard, [owners] apparently approved a supplemental revenue sharing proposal. Obviously, we have not been a part of those discussions."
So what's the point of calling a press conference and approving a deal that hasn't been approved by the other side? Isn't that like announcing a marriage before the other person sees the ring?
The point, as outlined by CBS Sports' Mike Freeman:
What Goodell and the owners did was place a bull's eye square on the chest of the players. The owners basically said this to fans: We tried to get a deal done and the players didn't. Blame the greedy players. ... It's brilliant, in some ways. Perfect example: The owners are planning to open team facilities later this week. The owners hope to get players working out at the various complexes, get them excited about returning to football, and thus weaken union leadership.
What the owners did, quite bluntly, was pull a manipulative power play.
In other words, this is the NFL making one final bid to leverage the fans against the players, forcing them to make concessions they'd never agreed to. The specifics of what they snuck into the CBA don't even matter; in the end, we'll have football back a day or two later than expected. What's clear, though, is that the NFL assumed fans wouldn't understand what happened.
That's what I'll remember most from the 2011 lockout, when the richest professional sports league in the history of the world tried to convince fans they weren't making money, and expected us to believe it. The year they tried to make players look like lawyer-happy contrarians, even as the owners went to court to reinstate the lockout. Mostly, I'll remember Thursday--the day the lockout was supposed to end, when the NFL owners tried one more time to bulldoze the players into a corner, using the fans as leverage--because that pretty much epitomizes six months worth of news.
Thursday's great lesson is that Roger Goodell and the NFL owners think we're stupid. Or at least, stupid enough to fall for this clumsy, transparent PR trick. Stupid enough to be exploited and used against the players, forcing them into a panicked deal.
And let's be honest, the NFL's usually right. But if this lockout has taught us anything, it's that the NFL's games are a lot harder to stomach when we don't have football around to distract us.