Billion Here, There ... No NFL Anywhere

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To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, you'll never go wrong underestimating the intelligence of those trying to reach a new collective-bargaining agreement.

Looks bad, people. A week ago I promised there would be an NFL season in 2011. Believed both sides, the owners and the players, were too wise to mess up a good thing. Thought they understood the idea of compromise.

Now the principals are exchanging insults on Twitter. Management is taking cheap shots at the players, and the players are responding in kind, each group blaming the other, as if the blame isn't equal.

You hear the financial figures, and it's almost like Monopoly cash. As the late Sen. Everett Dirksen may not actually have said about the defense budget, but it's still a wonderful quote, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you're talking real money."

The number supposedly at stake for everyone to divvy up in the NFL is $9.3 billion, which is big enough. And meaningful enough for the battling parties to find reason for a truce and an agreement.

But while brinksmanship was last week's tactic, this week the plan is self-destruction.

There was a fine piece in Thursday's USA Today by Michael McCarthy focusing on the effect a work stoppage would have on the lesser people whose incomes derive from NFL games.

The main man was Ricky Ricardo, whom I know, and who runs one of the classic sports bars/restaurants in the land, Ricky's Sports Theatre (yes, British spelling) and Grill in San Leandro, next town south of Oakland.

Never mind the Raiders memorabilia, which is impressive. It's the dozens of TV sets that are the attraction. Every sporting event on the tube at any time is on a tube, or three or four tubes, at Ricky's. The place has so many satellite dishes it looks like a branch of NASA.

The article pointed out that Ricky's does 65 percent of its business during the NFL season. "We'd be like a movie theater without the movies,'' was Ricardo's summation. "Without sports, there's no sports bar. And the NFL is the No. 1 sport."

The people who run the NFL know that, which tends to make them quite sure of themselves. "We got it,'' is the impression set forward, "and you want it."

The players, as they remind us, are the game. While they don't pay for the flights or the shoulder pads, they do pay with their bodies. As we've learned from new information on concussions, it may be a high price.

The owners deserve a fair return on their investment. The players deserve an equally fair return for their investment - themselves. And with $9.3 billion out there to be negotiated, there's money enough for one and all. Except one and all want if not all, then more than the other group is willing to offer.

Out there in the peanut gallery, at the mercy of the league and players, are the ushers, the waitresses, the concessionaires, the merchandise shop workers, the motel and hotel employees and anybody else whose job depends on the owners and the players.

That Sundays and Monday nights may be considerably less exciting without games is to some no less an issue.

We went through the drill with strikes in 1982 and 1987. No one was pleased, especially when in '87 some teams brought in replacement players. The NFL is too much a part of the scene.

Jeff Pash, the NFL negotiator, may not have been able to make progress, but he did make sense. "I've said it many times,'' was his statement. "If both sides have an equal commitment to getting this deal done, it will get done. I don't know if both sides have an equal commitment."

DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, countered that the league for two years was squirreling away $4 billion in television money to "lock out our fans, lock out our players, even if the games weren't played."

The game being played at the conference table is one that could end with everybody as a loser - owners, athletes and maybe most of all the thousands who stand there with open mouths and open hands.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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