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With NFL thriving, potential lockout unthinkable

About the Author

Hub Arkush

harkush@pfwmedia.com
Publisher and editor

Recent posts by Hub Arkush

Pro Football Weekly says goodbye

Posted May 31, 2013 @ 6:08 p.m.

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Lewis overload has shrouded Super Bowl XLVII

Posted Feb. 01, 2013 @ 1:08 p.m.

Jim Harbaugh: Much more than meets the eye

Posted Jan. 31, 2013 @ 2:52 p.m.

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Tags

Posted Jan. 25, 2011 @ 10:12 a.m. ET
By Hub Arkush

I was born on Valentine's Day, 1953. In April of 1957, my dad took me to my first Cubs game at Wrigley Field, and that November he took me to my first Bears game at Wrigley vs. the Baltimore Colts. I won't pretend to remember any specifics about those two games — hell, I was 4. What I remember is that I was with this larger-than-life superhero, my dad, and if Wrigley was the only place he ever wanted to be, then it was meant to be my second home, too.

So, over the course of that spring, summer, fall and early winter of '57, my disease was born, the one that I've suffered with and cherished every day since. I was and am a Chicago guy, and my life became my family, my job and my teams, in that order, unless of course the Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks or Bulls have a particularly big game, in which case folks just have to understand my priorities may get reshuffled a bit for an hour or three.

I can't really explain it, but let's face it, folks: If you're reading this, you've got a strain of my disease that you live for every bit as much as I do; it just may be from a different city. No matter where you live, you had to marvel at the buildup to the NFL's 2010 conference title games, and if you just happen to have the Pittsburgh, New York or even the Green Bay bug, you spent the week in the same kind of Shangri-La us Chi-town folks did.

Perhaps the only thing a bit unique to me as it relates to this little tale I'm trying to weave is that my road took a strange turn in my teens, when my dad decided to make his passion his life's work and start Pro Football Weekly. He was always a journalist first, so those who wanted to join had to find a unique spot in their minds where the Bears could only be admired equally to the other 27 NFL teams at the time, and eventually all 30 and then 32.

Unfortunately, we were all cheated when my dad left us far too early in my mid-20s, and I chose to chase his dream. And things got really strange when, through a confluence of events I won't bore you with, I became part of the Bears' broadcast team in 1985 and a color commentator on the games on their radio network from 1987-2004. I know some of you are convinced I'm biased toward the Bears to this day, but the reality is that when I was finally fired in '04, about half of Bears Nation was thrilled to be rid of me for being such a homer, and the rest were convinced I got the ax for being too honest and hard on them during the broadcast and actually regretted my departure. It seems I got it fairly close to right, which I guess is how I got picked up by Westwood One Radio and ended up working national broadcasts of the league's biggest games many weeks ever since.

And that is how I came to be sitting in my hotel room in Pittsburgh the Saturday night before the AFC title game, preparing to work that contest, penning these thoughts and truly excited about the job at hand but unwilling to lie and not admit to being just a tad disappointed at being away from my beloved Chicago and the biggest sporting event in its history. Am I particularly qualified to find some perspective on just how the NFL built to its remarkable 2010 championship Sunday and prepared for Super Bowl XLV and all that might follow? Perhaps so, and finally I am to the real point of my essay.

The NFL, our NFL, is at its absolute zenith. Were it not for the New York Jets and, specifically, Joe Willie Namath, it's possible none of this ever would have happened. I'm not sure who coined the phrase "On any given Sunday" or when they did it, but it was Namath's Jets who proved it and changed pro football forever. To see them back within spitting distance of this Super Bowl and having traveled that road behind Buddy Ryan's boy, Rex, with the exact same swagger and bravado that old Joe Willie did has been flat-out scintillating. We can't take our eyes off them, and for all of us who aren't Jets fans, I'll bet you're as unsure as I am whether you're hoping for a jackpot or a train wreck.

We did know, however, as they headed into Pittsburgh, a clash of titans was upon us. If the matchup lacked some of the folk-hero aura of the NFC game — and any other possible matchup would have — it was made up for by the Steelers' legendary status as the most successful franchise in the modern era of the game. Nobody else has six rings, and no other team spells blood-and-guts football like the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Then there was Packers-Bears, the oldest rivalry in the history of America's runaway favorite sport between two of its two most successful franchises, Nos. 1 and 2 in world championships, Hall of Fame players, family feuds and neighborhood bar brawls. In the Midwest, this game arrived like Halley's comet, a once-in-a-lifetime event that burned brighter and brought more anticipation than any that Chicago and Green Bay fans had ever seen before. Since they will never meet in a Super Bowl, it offered the ultimate prize for the league's oldest and most heated rivalry, only the second time in the 91-year history of the league these two would meet in the playoffs, and the first time ever with so much at stake. No matter where you live or whom you cheer for, this was a game that every NFL fan wanted to see.

Now, we have the Packers and Steelers on a new collision course to what could very well prove to be the most anticipated Super Bowl in NFL history. Add to that the simple fact that 2010 was the most successful television season in the history of the game that public-opinion polls continue to show is widening its gap as the runaway favorite sport in America in every demographic. Ticket and merchandise sales are at or near all-time highs, and according to multiple highly regarded, independent financial monitoring publications and polls, revenues are at an all-time high, and every club is making money, some hundreds of millions of dollars a year. So why are we left with Armageddon right around the corner, and two very simple questions?

Realistically, there could be no 2011 and beyond, or at least a significant portion of the '11 season could be lost, because of the chasm between the owners and players in negotiations around a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. How is it possible these people are preparing to do serious damage to, if not slaughter, the most golden of geese in the American entertainment industry when it's never been healthier? And why don't we, the fans, the people who make the game what it is, seem to matter to any of them?

Labor negotiations are not football games, and in a successful negotiation there are no winners or losers. To be successful, both sides must give a little and get a little, and in the end there is compromise, from which both sides can benefit. In the same vein, there are no good guys or bad guys and no one for us to pull for, which has been pretty easy since neither side seems particularly interested in getting a deal done, with its only public focus being a need to blame the other guys for the lack of progress to date. Don't we all deserve better?

Here are the few things we do know, the first being that the reason this is happening now is 100 percent the NFL owners' fault. They had a perfectly good CBA, around which the game has flourished to its unprecedented heights and under which the players were happy to continue to perform. The players, according to all the evidence available to us, wanted no part of this, but the owners chose to opt out of the current CBA early, as was their right under the deal they negotiated in 2006, because it just "wasn't working for them."

What we don't know is how it's not working for them, since in spite of the mountain of circumstantial evidence — which is all that's available to us — indicating they are all getting fabulously wealthy from the game, the owners have steadfastly refused to open their books or offer any proof at all as to why they need help. What they have told us is that it's costing them a great deal of money to invest in the future of the game, building stadiums that in many cases are monuments to themselves among other investments, and that they believe the players should share in that investment by taking less of the revenue they are producing now and a smaller percentage of revenues going forward in the hope they'll eventually become whole and then prosper even more from the new revenues that will be produced. It sounds to me like a pretty one-sided deal, but again, without any details to support all the bluster, how are we to know?

Another major issue that absolutely must be addressed is finding a way to give back to the retired players who brought us to where we are today but are currently neglected, as today's players and owners become wealthier and wealthier. On this issue, both sides agree something must be done, and each has advanced rough outlines of big ideas that each would like the other side to pay for. Both the owners and players are clearly right to care, and both are wrong to be using this issue as a wedge, and in some cases a hammer, against the other while the guys who need help continue to suffer.

One other thing we do know is the roughly 2,000 players in the NFL today are absolutely the best football players in the world, and without them all of this would be meaningless. The owners, on the other hand, are basically 32 rich guys, all of whom I'm sure love the game every bit as much as we do and, in many cases, more. But how many of them actually mean something to the game? If they were all gone tomorrow, wouldn't there be a long line of rich guys dying to replace them and every bit as capable or possibly even more capable of running your favorite team?

Perhaps the owners need help. Most of them whom I know or have met, I like, and I've never found any of them to be dishonest. But if they do need help, it's time for them to prove it. We are the people they are getting fabulously rich off of, and if they're willing to risk destroying our game over their claims, they owe us that much. And if this proves to be really more about greed than need, they need to stop trying to win this mess and focus on a deal that is fair to all, especially their fans.

As for the players, stop whining about how all the owners are trying to do is screw you, get your butts to the negotiating table and refuse to leave until you have a deal. It feels like you have the high ground here, but at this point, that and a dollar will get you a lockout. We're not hearing anything about what you're doing to try to solve this mess, and we're well past the point where you need to prove to us you're as concerned about what you can give to our game as you are about what you can take from it.

These last few weeks — and, in particular, Bears-Packers and Steelers-Jets — have reminded us dramatically of everything that is great about the National Football League and why we as fans, media, players and owners love it, in many cases beyond all reason. It's been about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, neighbors and friends, winning with grace and losing with class and, more than anything, about being together as communities and fans for all the right reasons and for just a few hours a week bringing real joy into our lives.

It's time all of the NFL owners and players realized that's what is really at stake here and it's up to them to do something about it — now. It isn't really all that hard and, should they fail, a pox on all their houses. Protect and save our game now.

 

This article first appeared in the Pro Football Weekly print edition dated Feb. 6, 2011, which previews Super Bowl XLV. The print edition breaks down the big game in North Texas, including how the teams match up, five keys to the outcome, which club holds the edge at each position, how the teams compare statistically and much more. The issue also includes Nolan Nawrocki's mock draft, PFW's Super 50 of top players in 2010, a feature on former Giants RB and Super Bowl XXV MVP Ottis Anderson, and our annual Griddy Awards honoring top NFL broadcasters. You can purchase a copy of the Super Bowl preview print edition at retail outlets across the country or online at PFWstore.com, where you can buy either a print copy or an electronic (PDF) version.

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