- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

What NFL owners divide among themselves isn’t really a pie, not any more. It’s more like a wedding cake — with multiple tiers. You’ve got money from TV and radio, money from ticket sales, money from Official League Gear, money from computer games. So many revenue streams coming from so many directions, it’s a wonder owners don’t have to pass a swim test.

George Halas, who lived only long enough to see the first player strike in 1982, would be amazed at the revenue flowing from such sources as club seating and, potentially, the NFL Network (not to mention team Web sites). Halas, after all, once had to give the Packers an I.O.U. when gate receipts weren’t quite enough to cover their guarantee. To Papa Bear’s generation, an electric football game was high tech.

The Steelers’ Dan Rooney is the only owner who dates back to those days of want. Wellington Mara, witness to the Giants’ first game in New York, died last season. A shame, because the league could have used a few more of them these past few months, a few more graybeards to remind their younger brethren of how good they have it — and how good they can continue to have it if they just don’t … blow it.

This less-is-more argument can be a tough sell in a room full of Danny-come-latelys. And yet, the NFL wouldn’t be the NFL, the most successful league in sports history, if owners hadn’t made sacrifices, if the Haves hadn’t been willing to give the Have Nots an occasional break — for the good of the whole.

The draft, for instance. Can you imagine pro football without a draft? Where would the Colts be if they hadn’t been able to take Peyton Manning No. 1? Look at the magical effect Carson Palmer, another former first pick, has had on the Bengals. But if the Lions’ George Richards, whose team had just won the title, hadn’t sided with the weaker clubs on this issue in 1936, the NFL might be a much different league today. For one thing, there likely wouldn’t be a franchise in Green Bay.

“[Eagles owner Bert] Bell spoke long and argued forcefully for the draft,” Harry Wismer wrote in his memoir, “The Public Calls It Sport,” “but his personal prestige and strategic position were not particularly high then. His franchise was one of the poorest and weakest in the league, and he was vulnerable to the charge of self-seeking. … Richards’ support of the plan was critical. As one of the ‘haves,’ who stood to lose heavily if the draft was adopted, he was open to no such selfish charge. He may have been influenced originally by a desire to humble his archrival, Halas, but would not have willingly seen his own club weakened simply to bring down the Bears. Richards had always been a strong defender of the idea of a well-balanced competitive league.”

Wismer wasn’t exaggerating the bad blood between Richards and Halas. Indeed, in the backyard of his home in Palm Springs, Calif., the Lions boss had a row of tombstones bearing the names of his football “enemies” — Halas, the Giants’ Tim Mara, the Redskins’ George Preston Marshall, the Packers’ Curly Lambeau. You think the competition in the NFL is fierce now? You should have seen it back in the ‘30s, when only two teams made the playoffs (and fans could barely afford food, much less 50-yard line seats).

But the owners were always able to lay aside their differences if they felt the welfare of the league was at stake. They did it again in 1962, when they voted to have one league-wide TV contract — the proceeds to be shared equally — rather than a bunch of separate-but-unequal deals. (It tends to be forgotten, though, that the rival American Football League had an arrangement like that first, two years earlier. By following suit, the NFL wasn’t just trying to make its lesser clubs more competitive within the league, it was also trying bolster them financially for the battle against the AFL.)

But you get the sense the current crop of owners don’t know (or care) much about history. The New Breed — Dan Snyder, the Eagles’ Jeffrey Lurie, the Broncos’ Pat Bowlen, the Patriots’ Bob Kraft, et al. — have experienced little but windfall profits and/or steadily escalating franchise value. And this has come about not just because of their own business acumen, but because the seeds of success had already been sown by George Richards and Wellington Mara, by big-picture owners who could see beyond their own needs.

And so the owners went into overtime last night, fought over their pie/wedding cake until past 8 o’clock. They needed to come to an agreement with each other — about revenue sharing — before they could come to an agreement with the players. It was, in many respects, the same old story: In this corner, wearing the white trunks, you had Sense; in the other corner, wearing the blank trunks, you had Self-Interest. Fortunately for the NFL, it had the same ending, too. Sense won a split decision … and a six-year extension of the CBA.

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