Time Out?

If NFL players and owners dig in, football will be just a fantasy

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Picture this, NFL fans: It's a crisp September Sunday afternoon, and Peyton Manning takes the ... snack and drops back into his couch. He's at home with nothing to do because NFL football isn't being played. Your fantasy-football team is exactly that: a fantasy.

This disaster scenario could come true. The NFL is more popular than ever: a record 111 million viewers watched this year's Super Bowl. Yet the league's owners and players seem bent on ruining a very good thing. The NFL's collective-bargaining agreement, which governs the lucrative business of the game, expires March 4. Unless federal mediation or a flurry of last-second negotiating produces a deal, the owners will most likely institute a lockout that would effectively shut down the game. Most football insiders fear this work stoppage could cut into the upcoming season. "We're healthy as an industry," says the New England Patriots' billionaire owner, Robert Kraft. "It would just be criminal if we don't get a deal done before March 4."

Sir, are you ready for your mug shot? NFL owners currently take about $1 billion off the top of the league's $9 billion revenue pot before doling out around 60% of the remaining funds to the players. The average NFL salary is about $1.8 million. The owners say they want another $1 billion off the top to build new stadiums and create digital initiatives. These investments, they argue, would boost overall revenues down the road, so everyone would benefit.

The players dropped the challenge flag on that one: We're knocking heads every Sunday, helping the game grow, and you're asking us to take a pay cut? They say "down the road" is too far away for athletes whose careers average 3½ years.

Neither side rates much sympathy. As part of the revenue-generating plan, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has proposed expanding the season to 18 games, a change for which fans aren't clamoring. Adding games would contradict the league's supposed commitment to player safety. Plus, the league has refused to share team profit figures with the players to bolster its case. This lack of transparency creates a lack of trust.

But the union's message is getting silly. "It's about the fans," says union president Kevin Mawae, a former player. Come on, Kevin: if it were all about them, you'd accept your six- and seven-figure salaries and snap the ball.

The players want to protect paychecks, and that's fine. Just don't pretend otherwise. Fans want them to stop the spin, make a deal and let their butts, not players', be on the sofa in September.