- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 20, 2010

There’s a widget you can add to your laptop if you really want to be bummed out. A countdown clock, courtesy of your favorite NFL players, to the time when football, as we know it, will surely end.

Ticking away on the new NFL union’s website, it stood at 131 days and counting on Wednesday. NFL owners, an accompanying cartoon tells us, are already flying this plane blindly on a one-way trip to a place they’ve been before.

Lockout Island.

If you can’t understand how the league and players could be so close to killing the cash cow that is the NFL, it’s all explained in cartoons that even the average Dallas Cowboys fan can figure out.

The players, it turns out, are standing as one with the fans. Take that, greedy owners, who are not only threatening the future of America’s favorite sport but endangering the health of a lot of innocent babies.

Yes, babies. Listen to union leader DeMaurice Smith, who worries that players won’t have health insurance for their children if the NFL locks them out, as widely anticipated on March 1.

Smith told Minnesota Vikings fans on Tuesday that some players “have children who need heart transplants. We have several players who have children who are on kidney dialysis. We will have over 100 players who will have children who are born in the March, April, May timeframe. Right now all of those players need health insurance.”

Makes it easy to pick a side in this one. Have to be pretty heartless to be against sick babies.

It’s a little more complicated, of course. There’s billions of dollars at stake, and how they’re divided over the term of the next collective bargaining agreement will decide which side gets even richer than they are right now.

But the fact the rhetoric is getting so heated so soon isn’t a good sign that things will end happily. Though both sides have, at times, expressed optimism that a deal can be reached, both are digging in for a lockout that many see as inevitable.

“From a seriousness standpoint, the players believe this lockout is going to occur,” Smith said

To prepare for that, players are making the tactical move of voting to decertify the union for a possible legal battle ahead. But a public-relations battle may eventually decide this looming conflict, and the union under Smith is showing some savvy in that area.

Ordinarily, painting owners as the culprits wouldn’t be so tough because no one likes heartless billionaires who want to make even more billions. But it’s also hard to think of NFL players as victims, especially when they head to the bank to deposit their $20 million signing bonus checks.

So there are cartoons, and talk of sick babies. There’s even an online petition at NFLLockout.com, which fans can sign to show that are standing as one with the players.

Owners aren’t above digging in their own bag of tricks, either. Their claims earlier this month to the Wall Street Journal that the league could lose nearly $1 billion if there was a lockout _ even if there is a 2011 season _ were clearly intended to step up the pressure on the union to agree to concessions before it’s too late.

Included in that $1 billion is a claim of $400 million in lost season ticket sales in March alone, the month a lot of teams send out renewals. That’s almost laughable, since it assumes a certain percentage of fans will just give up on football. But when you’re going up against cartoon characters and sick babies, every million counts.

What isn’t in dispute is that the gulf between the two sides is wide. The NFL generates some $9 billion annually, with about $1 billion going to operating expenses, and owners get 40 percent of the rest. But they want about $1 billion more before the players get their 60 percent, and they also want players to work harder for their money with an 18-game season.

The players’ union, of course, doesn’t want to give up a dime. But if it wants to come away with a new contract that protects most of its current riches, it has to make its case to the same kind of skeptical fans whose lack of support in the strike of 1987 eventually helped crush the union.

So the union bashes the owners as rich fools who don’t have a humanitarian bone in their bodies. It draws cartoons, draws up petitions, and tries to draw fans to rallies on its behalf.

If it can’t make progress at the bargaining table, the union will settle for progress in the court of public opinion.

While the show goes on, the countdown clock keeps ticking.

____

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.

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