Ira Miller: NFL has enough money for everyone

By Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 24, 2017 at 3:16 PM
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Every now and then, we read about how the collective intelligence of the American public is not particularly good. It's usually mentioned in a political context. But no one, not even politicians, can take advantage of it like our favorite sports league.

Yes, I'm looking at you, NFL.

Why in the world a league that has a license to print money seemingly is in a constant state of internal war with its players is beyond comprehension. Yet, that's the case with recent pronouncements that commissioner Roger Goodell is close to a contract extension "similar" to his current inflated salary, and that players union head DeMaurice Smith says a player strike or a lockout is "almost a virtual certainty" when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021.

Goodell's obsession with the almighty dollar was already beyond the pale and, this week, we have union president Eric Winston saying he doesn't care about the future of the league because "in 20 years ... none of us are going to be playing."

Is this for real? Seriously? We're talking about just four years from now, not 20, when perhaps 90 percent of the current NFL players will be out of the league. Is this kind of talk really necessary? Are these people trying to make people sick of pro football? Trying to turn fans away from the game?

The NFL manages to succeed in spite of itself. The game is just that popular. Forget about whether you think Goodell is doing a good job or a lousy job. Four years is a long time. Where else is he going to make that kind of money? What is the big rush to extend the contract now? He's not going to jump to the NBA or MLB.

And why is Smith, the union's executive director, so intent on fanning the flames of discord so early? Most of those players he is saying are "almost a virtual certainty" to strike in four years are still in college. Some are still in high school. Are these people really this crazy?

With each passing month, the lovey-dovey relationship between Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner, and the late Gene Upshaw, the former head of the NFL Players Association, makes more and more sense. There were no strikes or lockouts on Tagliabue's watch. And despite critics who used to say he was keeping labor peace in the league by giving away the store to the players, there is no history of teams that went out of business because of a generous deal with the players association.

Yet, today, we hear repeated references to Goodell's aim of $25 billion revenue for the NFL within a decade, which would require an increase of about $1 billion a year. Look, we know pro football is a business, no matter how much the fans would like to think of it as sport, a game. But must those fans constantly be hit over the head with a reminder? Aren't all the commercials on the telecasts enough?

What's strange about the discord between the league and its players is that, on most issues, the players and the owners are on the same side. Maybe the players do not want the season extended to 18 games because they don't want more wear-and-tear on their bodies, but that's not really a hot-button issue at the moment. And much as there is talk about what's wrong with following a Sunday game with another on Thursday, about the travel, about training camps, about too many exhibition games, the only really serious sticking point between the sides involves disciplinary matters.

This, of course, is back at the forefront now as we await a hearing on the appeal of Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is facing a six-game suspension. Yet, the number of players who get caught up in disciplinary issues, whether for drinking or drug abuses or for other off-field incidents, is a ridiculously small percentage in a league where there are nearly 1,700 players on active rosters during the season.

Which, of course, brings us back to the question of why Goodell and Smith can't just get along in the interest of doing what's best for virtually everybody. Just guessing now, but turning disciplinary issues over to a truly independent arbitrator would eliminate about 99.9999 percent of the matters on which the players and owners can't agree.

That is such a simple solution.

It's almost inconceivable to think Smith is right and that there will be a work stoppage in four years. The owners don't want one because they're rolling in cash and are smart enough to realize that disunity is bad for business. Plus, they're happy with the current labor agreement. The players don't want a stoppage because they're making a lot of money, even if it isn't as much as, say, the owners or LeBron James or Stephen Curry make. And most of them are savvy enough to realize their years of big income have an expiration date.

If the players really wanted to change things, there is a simple solution. Enough of them have to stay away from the "voluntary" phase of offseason workouts. The reason for the quote marks is that we all know these workouts aren't really voluntary. But the players don't get paid much for them, and if they all stayed away, it would send a strong message - without disrupting the league's real cash cow, the games themselves.

But therein lies the problem. There really isn't much the players want to change. There really is enough money for everybody. Can't we all just get along?

Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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