- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2011

Strip away the romanticism and realize that playing football isn’t noble or heroic, or a metaphor for unity, commitment and sacrifice through shared blood, sweat and tears.

Turn down the classical music and solemn intonations of NFL Films. Tune out the pregame pep talks and postgame speeches. Take off the blinders that paint NFL players as our communal gladiators, bravely quenching our primal thirst.

Removing all those diversions and distractions leaves us with a cold, hard fact: Playing in the NFL is a job - a brutal, violent and debilitating job.

And no one should engage in such work against his will, whether he balks due to an undesirable location or inadequate compensation. Don’t tell me about contracts, which are totally one-sided in the NFL and merely cloud the issue. A player has just one shot at leverage when he disagrees with working conditions, and that’s to walk away and see what happens.

That’s why I don’t have a problem whatsoever with quarterback Carson Palmer, who says he’d rather not play again if it means another season with the wretched Cincinnati Bengals. And I’m fine with wideout DeSean Jackson’s decision that he’d rather not report to training camp unless the Philadelphia Eagles reward him with a much-deserved raise.

(Teams have all the leverage and the players union would never allow this to happen, but wouldn’t it be something if, say, JaMarcus Russell had held out after his third season - like Jackson is doing - and demanded to renegotiate with the Raiders? “I’m sorry, Mr. Davis, but I’ve been a complete and total bust and don’t deserve the $9.45 million that I’m due this year. Although my performance barely warrants the league minimum, I’ll happily accept that amount but won’t report otherwise.” His threat wouldn’t have been necessary, though. The Raiders cut him and he pocketed $3 million in guaranteed money).

Any fan who argues that “a contract is a contract” and players should get their butts in camp, disregards a long-established philosophy within American capitalism. It’s a time-honored approach to business and a commandment among law practitioners: “Contracts are made to be broken.”

NFL teams, in particular, break them all the time. As soon as they were allowed, the Redskins and every other team released multiple players who were signed for the upcoming season. NFL contracts aren’t worth the ink they’re printed with, which makes Bengals owner Mike Brown sound like a hypocritical numbskull for refusing to trade Palmer.

Carson signed a contract; he made a commitment,” Brown told reporters last week. “He gave us his word. We relied on his word and his commitment. We expected him to perform here. If he is going to walk away from his commitment, we aren’t going to reward him for doing it.”

No, he’s going to punish his team and Bengals fans instead, depriving them of whatever assets Palmer could fetch.

Palmer’s strategy of retiring unless traded is unusual, far less common than holding out until receiving a raise. Besides Jackson, other notable players who refused to report on time this year are Tennessee tailback Chris Johnson, New York Giants lineman Osi Umenyiora, San Francisco tailback Frank Gore. You can make a game of counting the holdouts each season and guessing when they’ll show up.

There’s no question that Jackson is dramatically underpaid, reportedly set to earn $565,000 this season, not even among the Eagles’ 25 highest salaries. Yet Jackson is one of the NFL’s most dynamic playmakers, both as a receiver and a punt returner. His slight frame and history of concussions give him two more reasons to seek market value as he enters the fourth and final year of his rookie contract.

Johnson is another player who clearly has outperformed his rookie contract - unless you believe $800,000 is appropriate for the league’s best or second-best running back. Considering how NFL halfbacks last only four years on average, you can’t blame Johnson for wanting to be paid now, before his wheels fall off.

Some fans argue that Palmer and NFL holdouts should report because they owe it to their teammates. Please. The only thing any player owes is 100 percent effort in practice, meetings and games. But business comes first, and there’s no obligation to ignore it.

Especially since NFL teams keep it at the forefront of their decision-making.

Never forget that all the highlights and thrills, pool results and fantasy scores, are courtesy of professional football players. Emphasis on “pro.”

Consequently, disputes between individual employers and individual employees are bound to occur. No matter how much we romanticize the work.

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