The strangeness of an uncapped season is upon us as of today, with its Final Eight Plan, fewer unrestricted free agents, lack of a salary floor and more. Think of it as your computer's operating system changing overnight. There's really no telling how the users – in this case, the league's 32 teams -- will react. You know some weirdness will ensue.
It's happening because the owners and the players' union couldn't agree on a new collective bargaining agreement. The current one is set to expire a year from now, in March 2011, and it included a provision calling for an uncapped final year because both sides hoped the threat of it would encourage them to get a new deal done early.
Well, it didn't. The sides have met, but they don't appear close to an agreement. The main issue is money, as is usually the case. The owners want to roll back the 59.6 percent share of their total revenues that they pay to the players. The players don't want to give anything back unless they're certain the owners are struggling.
Although it would seem there's more than enough cash pumping through pro football's veins to keep everyone happy, I can see where both sides are coming from. The owners are dealing with rising costs in a tough economy, hardly ideal circumstances. And the players feel taken for granted when they hear the owners discussing the possibility of an 18-game regular season, an indignity that would almost qualify as abuse given the brutal physical conditions on today's playing fields. (By the way, the players have historically gotten hammered in NFL labor talks, unlike in major league baseball, where the players have hammered the owners.)
Sitting in the middle, as always, are the fans, whose enduring passion for pro football is what puts all that money into the game's veins. From their standpoint, the inability of the owners and players to reach an agreement is, as of now, tantamount to, again, having to get used to a new computer operating system. It's merely annoying, and really, not even annoying so much as just different. The bottom line is fine. The computer still works. There will still be a pro football season in 2010.
That's all the fans care about. They might feign interest in watching wealthy guys squabble over how to cut up a big pie, but frankly, they don't care. These disputes, for them, boil down to one basic question: Will they still be able to watch football?
Since the answer, for now, is yes, there's no buzz building about the oddness of an uncapped season. It's just something to deal with, another possible factor in determining which teams win and lose in 2010.
But there won't be a similarly benign reaction a year from now if the players and owners still haven't reached an agreement. Although neither side is tipping their hand, there's talk of a possible owner lockout of the players if the current deal expires. That leaves open the possibility of tempers flaring, the spat escalating and the worst-case scenario arising – no pro football in 2011.
That's not getting used to a new operating system. That's having someone take your computer away.
The players and owners need to know that their customers will not be happy about this. Not happy at all.
The fans have dealt with work stoppages before in all of the major sports, some more hurtful than others. They always come back, but it's been awhile since a big one came along, and I'm thinking their tolerance would be at an all-time low. Taking their pro football away now, with so many people struggling economically, would qualify as the definition of tone deaf.
These days, pro football is the national pastime, a brilliant and compelling year-round spectacle. But nothing in sports – or any endeavor for that matter – is ever thus. The players and owners in the NFL have a great thing going. Do they have legitimate differences causing this dispute? Yes. And they should strive to settle them amicably in the next year, before the possibility of a total pro football blackout becomes more real. The first law of business, remember, is don't insult your customers.
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.