- Associated Press - Saturday, March 12, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) - Welcome to The NFL Lockout.

As far back as May 2008, it became a possibility.

As recently as a week ago _ when owners and players agreed to extend the deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement _ Commissioner Roger Goodell made it sound avoidable.

And yet here we are: The country’s most popular sport _ water-cooler fodder for six months of Mondays; generator of more than $9 billion in annual revenues; responsible for the two most-watched programs in U.S. TV history, the 2010 and 2011 Super Bowls _ is stuck in a holding pattern, thanks to its first work stoppage in nearly a quarter of a century.

The owners imposed a lockout on the players Saturday, essentially shutting down operations. That came hours after talks broke off and the union dissolved itself, meaning players no longer are protected under labor law but instead are now allowed to take their chances in federal court under antitrust law. Nine NFL players, including superstar quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, and one college player headed for the pros filed a class-action lawsuit in Minnesota and asked for a preliminary injunction to block a lockout, even before it went into effect.

“I know this sort of gives us a bad name _ as well as the owners _ in some fans’ eyes,” said Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, one of the plaintiffs in the case that forever will be known as Brady et al vs. National Football League et al. “Some fans are more upset with the owners, and some are more upset with the players.”

The lockout, a right management has to shut down a business when a CBA expires, means there can be no communication between the teams and current NFL players; no players _ including those drafted in April _ can be signed; teams won’t pay for players’ health insurance.

They took the term “lockout” rather literally at the Tennessee Titans’ headquarters in Nashville, where a metal chain secured the main gate to the parking lot’s front entrance, an extra bit of security normally not seen there.

The NFL has enjoyed labor peace since a 1987 strike by the players, but now next season could be jeopardized, depending on what happens in court.

Fans really will be upset if regular-season games are lost. No Sundays on the couch or at a bar, scanning television screens for the latest “Did you see that?!” plays. No fantasy football leagues or office pools.

So what happened?

With so much at stake, why did everything fall apart?

Despite 16 days spent in face-to-face talks at the office of a presidentially appointed federal mediator, how did it come to this?

In terms of the key bargaining issues, there really was one that stands out: Put simply, owners and players couldn’t figure out a mutually palatable way to split all those billions of dollars that come from TV contracts, ticket and merchandise sales, sponsorship deals, etc.

By Friday afternoon, when mediator George Cohen declared “no useful purpose would be served” by asking the parties to keep negotiating, it appeared the NFL and union were about $185 million apart on how much owners should get up front each season for certain operating expenses before splitting the rest of the revenues with players. That’s a far cry from the $1 billion that separated the sides for months.

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