Pro football's owners and players have come to an agreement, but have they turned off fans in the process?
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin), and Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) talk about the end of the pro football lockout.
So after 134 days, four lawsuits and one "circumcising mosquitoes" comment from Jerry Jones, the NFL lockout is coming to a close. Free agency may be shorter and a round of preseason games might get the axe, but fall Sundays will be the same as they ever were. Let the rejoicing begin!
And yet... I find myself unable to summon much exuberance. Basically, the last four months was just a bunch of posturing and grandstanding by two groups of very rich people who redistributed some of their multi-billion dollar pile of revenue. The owners get a little more, the players a little less, and Vincent Jackson may or may not be demanding $10 million just for being a named plaintiff in one of the lawsuits. In other news, personal seat licenses are still on sale! Spare me.
I recognize that labor strife is a part of any industry, including the entertainment world (of which sports is definitely a part)—just look at the 2008 writers' strike. But when labor and capital play footsie for four months while the fans/consumers squirm nervously on the sidelines, I lose a little bit of enthusiasm for the sport. And I'm not alone—look at Major League Baseball from 1995-98 or try to find a regular-season NHL game on your TV. The NBA faces a similar protracted work stoppage, and both sides have shown little urgency to fix the problem despite coming off the most entertaining basketball season in recent memory.
How about you, Hampton? Are you frustrated by this or do you already have a beer and a plate of wings in front of you?
The beer is cold, my friend. So is the champagne.
So, there will be no Footbapocalypse? The NFL lockout is ending, Porgy and Bess style, with plenty of nothing. Color me weirdly disappointed. Sure, it's great that (professional, outdoor, American) football will return this fall. A relief, even. Still, there's a part of me that's strangely disappointed—who was ready to watch with morbid glee as the country went mad from lack of pigskin and the league tore itself apart.
But bothered by the millionaire vs. billionaire bickering? Nah. No one else will be, either.
Sure, I'm one of those who was hurt by baseball—more by PED chicanery than any labor strife. But baseball is burdened by the weight of its own Americana, and fans just don't have the same expectations for other sports—that's especially true of the roguish NFL. Just try to imagine guys like Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones getting second and third chances in MLB. If fans can forgive NFL players for felonies, and forgive owners for, say, dumping a favorite veteran to save money—which we can and do—it's hard to see anyone getting all that upset about a shortened free agency period.
Has it really been 134 days? It feels much shorter than that. Ever since the NFL lockout began, the fans' focus has been the league's inevitable restart. I agree with Hampton that it might have been fascinating (if a little masochistic) to see how football-obsessed America adjusted to an autumn without the pros—Sundays would have been so much more productive!—but did we ever seriously entertain the possibility that the owners and the players might not reach a deal?
I've been anticipating the resolution since day one. As Jake said, this was a battle of billionaires and millionaires. Judy Battista of the New York Times tweeted Wednesday that a fire alarm had gone off in the hotel where the owners were hosting their talks, and none of them exited the meeting. Maybe that's a nice symbol of their dedication to the cause; more likely it's a realistic illustration of just how resistant these men are to losing a season of massive earnings.
And of course, they're going to do just fine. Like Hampton, I don't foresee the NFL losing any of its fan base because they were "circumcising mosquitoes" (really, Mr. Jones?) for four and a half months. On the contrary, it could even make for a revival of interest—not that this league needs it—simply because the suits agreed. You know Roger Goodell will do his best to bill it as a victory for the fans, who will want to feel like their interests (and not just their ticket sales) played a role in the deal. Do you feel represented, Patrick?
I'd glad you asked. As a fan, I don't feel represented. More importantly, I don't expect to feel represented. Not when Jerry Jones, Drew Brees, and a bunch of well-connected lawyers sit down to determine who's getting what after said lawyers get theirs. (Death, taxes, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and lawyers winning even when they lose: These things you can count on). After all, the NFL isn't Congress. It's commerce. A conglomeration selling stuff—in this case, eyeballs to television networks, along with hyperreal cleavage, irreversible brain damage and a way to shadowbox the inevitable Sunday night melancholy of having to go back to work the next day.
Excuse me. Did I say fan? I meant customer. Throughout the lockout, nothing drove me crazier than the constant, low-level,
near-subliminal talk radio suggestion and/or conceit that football
customers were somehow owed the upcoming season. That the pigskin lovin' people of our great nation were facing the prospect of a large and
unjust harm. No. A thousand times no. None of us are owed a thing from Goodell and company, any more than Harry Potter junkies are owed another book
from J.K. Rowling. Attention, America: pro football is neither a gift, a right nor a unicorn. It does not exist because of your perfect, unblemished
love for the Carolina Panthers. It's the big screen you bought at a big box store, the vacant-eyed girl behind the peep show glass. It exists because
you pay for it. With time and attention, sure. But mostly with money.
As such, I can't share Jake's frustration. Unlike Hampton, I'm not exactly relieved. Football doesn't move me that way. And to get back to your question, Emma—oddly enough, I do feel as though my interests played a sideways role in the NFL's deal. Probably because my interests are simple, unitary, the same interest each of us increasingly brings to every waking hour of American life: entertain me. As a pre-baked conflict, the lockout was pretty entertaining. Like a football game. Or Reality TV. Or the aforementioned Congress, which still represents our entertainment interests through sheer showy dysfunction, even as laws are bought and sold.
And that's the thing, Jake: you say posturing and grandstanding as if they're somehow bad.
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