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Labor dispute growing more painful

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Ron Borges
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Posted May 31, 2011 @ 6:05 p.m. ET
By Ron Borges

NFL owners say they want to "get the lawyers'' out of their contract squabble with their players. I imagine so. Don King says the same thing about his fighters.

Considering it is their side that brought in the first outside lawyer - NHL lockout architect Bob Batterman - more than two years ago, the gall of such a statement is mind-boggling. Then again, so is the idea that two sides with a total of less than 2,000 interested parties can't figure out how to divvy up $9 billion between them in a fashion that satisfies everyone.

The NFL's first labor war in 18 years is nothing to be proud of on either side, but the idea that 32 of the richest people in America can't make ends meet or keep the most prosperous game in all professional sports going without carving a measurable hunk out of the hides of their employees is, to be honest, ludicrous.

What is not is the idea that this battle of wills is now likely to cost games before it is finally over. Colts owner Jim Irsay said at last week's owners' meetings that a deal needed to be in place by July 4 to avoid losing at least some preseason games.

That date might not be set in stone, but both sides know there is such a date. When it is reached, the ability to come to an agreement will become even harder because the owners actually will have lost some real money for the first time.

To date, about a third of the league's teams have begun to cut the salaries of their non-football playing employees or demand unpaid furloughs from them. These are the innocent victims of greed: secretaries, clubhouse guys, equipment men, salesmen, the little people everyone forgets about until they need something.

Why ownership is doing this, beyond greed, is hard to fathom because the fact is, as Giants co-owner John Mara keeps saying, nobody has lost any money yet. Nobody but those who can least afford it.

Eventually, though, everyone will lose and that will only make it more difficult to reach an agreement because the owners will want that money back, meaning the deal last put on the table will go away and the next will be less friendly.

"The longer it goes, the more damage to the game,'' commissioner Roger Goodell said of the lockout that has sidelined professional football for the foreseeable future. "We've made it clear the economic impact is accelerating. It will impact on the owners' (future offers).''

Taking money off the table when the players believe there isn't enough on it does not, in the short term, seem to be the best way to get a deal. Neither, short term, are the lawsuits now being adjudicated in federal court.

The way to make a deal is to stop making it a testosterone test and make it an intelligence test. The owners overreached initially when they demanded $1 billion more off the top than they already got, effectively slicing the players' take by 18 percent a year after the game grossed the most money in NFL history despite the second worst economy in U.S. history.

The players overreached when NFL Players' Association head DeMaurice Smith called the owners' last offer the worst in the history of professional sports. Maybe he should have talked to Marvin Miller or Ed Garvey before he said that.

It was unfair. It was one-sided. It was ridiculous. It was not, however, the worst contract offer in sports history. The problem there is how do you later backpedal away from those words when faced with a deal that is not appreciably better?

Unfortunately, battle lines were drawn early, trust was lost (and rightfully so by the players after learning the full details of that sweetheart TV deal that created lockout insurance for the owners at the players' expense). Now both sides are stuck and as each week drags by, it becomes more difficult to avoid the unthinkable - that the season will not start on time.

It still might, to be sure, but it's looking a lot gloomier now than it did when this all started in the depth of winter. Spring is supposed to be about rebirth but at the moment, the NFL spring has been one of constant loss.

If that drags on into summer, there's only one thing you can be sure of - nothing will have been learned from the strike years of 1974 or '82 or '87.


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