Lockout would raise questions ignored for far too long

It all seems so mythological, perfectly running machinery forming memorable narratives. With relentless consistency, the National Football League has inspired, entertained, and enthused fans. No modern sports operation can compare, in terms of sheer popularity. The Super Bowl is a mainstream, cultural event. And those developing legends have been unfurled without any unpleasant interruption.

When an entity is this consistent, it acquires an air of invincibility. Nothing, it seemed, could derail a business this profitable, besides enemies from within.

To potentially damage an apparently impenetrable fortress, the primordial strength of all the positive virtues embellished by writers and broadcasters through a generation would have to be equalized and nullified, archetypical forces conjured from permanent realms. Only malignancies like greed and ego could overshadow decades of glorified winners, the modern day gladiators who had utilized strength, speed, and heart.

Perhaps it was all inevitable, an inescapable ledger balancing. The NFL has operated on a higher plane, somehow beyond reproach, despite sporting a unique set of troubling issues. The owners and players will very shortly commence digging hypothetical trenches, maybe firing off doomsday quotes, and potentially sacrificing a season’s worth of games due to an inability to communicate via screaming across wide chasms.

It has happened before.

The NHL ceased to exist for a while there, rinks rendered ghost igloos.  Major League Baseball survived a tidal wave of criticism following the destruction of their 1994 campaign. The NBA endured a work stoppage in the beginning of the decade, as player salaries actually began approaching market value. [Come on, five players to a starting lineup, usually one super-star per elite team, it’s a dream scenario for a player’s union. By the way, they are facing problems again, because player salaries need to be scaled back… again… hmmm… someone better not bring up the free market, they’ll never play again]

While other sporting enterprises became tangled in multiple public relations nightmares, due basically to unavoidable briefcase battles between owners, agents, and the represented talent, the NFL, comparatively, sailed through this past decade.

Sure, reports of broken down players were disturbing, especially among younger retirees, forced into difficult lifestyles to accommodate shattered bodies. The concussion issue, and the League’s reaction to it, was one of the most fascinating stories of 2010. Rule changes were made right in the middle of the season. Vicious hits, previously overlooked by commentators, are now the object condemnation, as if it were fair to expect players to adjust their instincts within weeks. As the hypocrisy became apparent, and the consequences of a violent sport made plain, the NFL’s magic scepter began collecting cracks.

This kind of negativity can be overcome, but should there be a long period of inactivity on the field, where serious issues are rendered mere distractions by victory obsessed performers, coaches, and an engrossed public, the consequences may actually be severe.

 The sports of America can present a vivid reflection of the country itself. Football grew with television. The game was perfectly tailored to the medium. Football became part of the changing portrait of a growing Nation. It has been propelled to the forefront of our consciousness due entirely to excellence. A hardened critic of the game may see no value in the competition. They would not be swayed by a demonstration of superb play. Aside from the bone jarring hits, previously, and ridiculously, overplayed by sensationalistic networks appealing to the lowest common denominator, there is one overriding reason for watching professional football: quality of play. Without that, everything associated with the game collapses. The players are most important. They made it all happen, through black and white, color, and high definition. Logos are plastered upon jerseys and midfields, team histories tabulated and celebrated, yet ultimately, football is popular because of the men behind the facemasks.

Proponents of the salary cap glorify a league where “dead weight” is released, basically consequence free. Most individual players are considered disposable. If his performance and paycheck are even slightly unbalanced, franchises will not hesitate to substitute a younger, cheaper, replacement. This is all good business.

The analysts and fans who have ceaselessly trumped parity, as a result of the salary cap, probably possess no second thoughts about this system. After all, the League lives in the now, and so do its followers. Fantasy league heroes are labeled zeroes the second they stop contributing to rotisserie rosters, from playmakers to punch-lines, very quickly. This columnist does not intend to make a moralist stand; I only try pointing out an obvious perception.  Fans don’t have to be loyal to players. Neither do the owners. It’s funny then, just analyzing the recent reaction to Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, who considered himself underpaid and sat out the majority of the Jets’ training camp. Many Jets supporters were left infuriated, venting their frustrations on message boards, assaulting the integrity of a player simply bargaining for a raise. If Revis were to be injured, and rendered an ineffective player, even for a single season, many of these aggrieved fans would support his jettisoning. This does not mean they personally dislike the human, hardly. They are simply going along with the game, and the culture it has produced.

 It’ll be interesting to see how NFL fans, and the media covering the sport, respond if this lockout does take place. Especially segments of the media which have been resolutely effusive in their praise for the league’s business model. They may have to ask themselves: Was the salary cap created because the owners were just desperate to keep player salaries down? So they could pocket more money? Did the resulting parity, a debatable drawn conclusion anyway, justify it all? Is the League all about competitive balance, or was that just a sweet little ancillary benefit of all their cap related machinations? It could be argued that the League, in effect, doesn’t sweat player safety, at least to the extent of recognizing this proposed eighteen game campaign as terribly flawed. The hierarchy has gone so far to suggest fans are clamoring for the change, when evidence of such a movement is in short supply.

See, the players are all about now, the coaches too, unless the season is already lost. And the fans are very about now, and playing pretend executives with their fantasy teams, casting aside players turned outdated models. There’s nothing to question, when so little is remembered.

But has anyone ever really considered the merits of the salary cap? Has anyone ever really considered whether parity ever existed, or is it just a matter of finding a quarterback? Has anyone ever really thought much beyond what a hugely successful corporate entity filtered out via talking heads? Has anyone ever really thought about the long term ramifications of player safety, how that could change the game? What about the hypocrisy of changing rules for the sake of safety, while still pushing a longer regular season?

Well, everyone might have time to think, pretty soon, for a long while, amid the ruins of Camelot.  

Will the Jets be drawing up plays next year?

Rex Ryan shared a few team related details during his presser:

Injury Report: “James Ihedigbo and Damien Woody did not practice, and they’re out for this game. Guys who are doubtful, Shaun Ellis with his back,* Eric Smith with his concussion… [questionable] Antonio Cromartie with a groin, Sione with a back, Trevor Pryce hip, Darrelle Revis with his hamstring.”

On trying to win against the Bills: “Will we do some things we maybe haven’t done…? Yeah… looking at different personnel… there’s only one way to play the game. And that’s full tilt… shoot, we want to win this game.”

On the $ 100,000 dollar fine levied by the League over trip-gate: “Quite honestly, we’re just looking to get through the season right now… our focus is trying to beat the Bills, and then get ready to move forward in the playoffs.”

Sanchez’s playing time this week: “I don’t believe it will be long.”

*Ellis is actually listed as questionable.

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