- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2008

Pull up a chair - preferably a recliner. This is going to take a while, this latest scrimmage between NFL owners and the players who enrich them. In fact, prepare for two years of posturing before labor and management get serious about revising their current agreement. Should make for riveting programming for Rich Eisen and the boys at the NFL Network.

In the meantime, try not to think too much about it - it’s just wasted energy - and enjoy the 2008 and 2009 seasons. The league has been down this road before, and it’ll be down this road again. Nothing raises hackles in pro football quite like a battle over shekels.

A couple of thoughts came to mind when the Barons of Football voted 32-0 Tuesday to opt out of their latest deal after the 2010 season:

1. This is why Paul Tagliabue is still waiting to get in the Hall of Fame - because before he stepped down as commissioner in ‘06, he pushed through a labor contract his bosses couldn’t wait to tear up.

2. Wonder whether Bryant Gumbel would like a do-over on his charge that union head Gene Upshaw was a lapdog of Tagliabue. Looks like, in this case, Upshaw got the better of him.

Every once in a while, even the NFL, the most successful sports league in history, blinks. And let’s face it, in the current economy, everybody this side of Saudi Arabia is tightening belts. Why, last summer, the owners shut down NFL Europa, that noble missionary venture that turned out, alas, to be little more than a tax write-off.

Meanwhile, we’ve all been following the league’s scrums with Comcast et al. as it tries to widen the reach of its young network. Plus - and this can’t be underestimated - it has been six years since the owners split the easy money of a franchise fee. After adding four teams from 1995 to 2002, the NFL may have reached the limits of expansion … for the time being, at least. So Dan Snyder and his colleagues are trying to come up with other ways to improve their bottom line, and reducing labor costs has always been very popular in these situations.

One trial balloon Roger Goodell floated the other day was the possibility of playing a 17th regular-season game. This might make sense, he explained, not just to increase revenues but to improve “the quality of the preseason,” which the owners are convinced has declined.

Who ever thought they’d see that? I’m not talking about a 17-game schedule; I’m talking about the words “quality” and “preseason” in the same sentence.

Let’s face it, the preseason has been a scandal for as long as the NFL has been an acronym, affording owners the opportunity to fill their coffers while paying players a pittance during training camp. Lately it has devolved into games between rookies and guys bound for the waiver wire - into a don’t-get-hurt exercise that mocks the sport.

The owners, however, aren’t likely to increase salaries by one-sixteenth, not if they’re intent on increasing profits. What they’ve proposed so far, Upshaw has said, is playing 17 games for the price of 16, an offer the players would reject out of hand.

What the union would do well to ask is: How much of this squeeze the owners are feeling is the result of forking over 59.5 percent of the gross to their helmeted employees and how much is the result of them suffering losses in their other businesses? Or to put it another way: Is Snyder’s net worth taking a hit because of diminishing returns from the Redskins or because of his dicey takeover of the Six Flags chain - or both?

If it’s givebacks the league is looking for, well, lots of luck, fellas. I’ll just point out that when the TV networks were all but begging for refunds not long ago because of falling ratings, the owners basically said, “Sorry, but a deal’s a deal.” Could anyone blame the players for responding to the owners’ cries for relief with the same lack of sympathy?

Rest assured the two sides will find a common ground before the 2010 draft. They have to. Do you think most owners, especially small-market ones, really want payrolls uncapped? For that matter, do you think DeMeco Ryans, Devin Hester, Maurice Jones-Drew and others from the 2006 draft, stars whose contracts are set to expire, want to wait two more years for unconditional free agency? If a new agreement isn’t worked out, both those scenarios could become reality.

So sit back, relax and let Rich vs. Richer play itself out. Something tells me when the testosterone has cleared, the NFL will still exist in some recognizable form. Just a wild guess.

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