NFL lockout: Next two weeks crucial to save season

NFL lockout enters crucial phase as owners meet. It's the last opportunity to end the NFL lockout without affecting the 2011 season.

Ed Zurga/AP
Members of the Kansas City Chiefs run a play during a players' organized football workout June 16, 2011, in Roeland Park, Kan. Over 40 players showed up for the workout as the NFL lockout continues.

The NFL lockout hit its 100th day during the weekend. It was already the longest work stoppage in the league's history.

Didn't notice? Didn't think so. If Santa Claus locked out the elves in June, no one would get that worked up about it, either. Not unless the little guys were still holding informal toy-making workouts in late November.

Yes, it has been annoying to fans to miss out on the Christmas wish-list exercise that is free agency. And sure, it is aggravating to try to follow the tangled knot of court rulings, appeals, and secret meetings. The only motion you're interested in is DeSean Jackson's running right to left before the ball is snapped.

But until there is a real disruption, such as the 1987 travesty that resulted in one canceled week and three weeks of games with so-called replacement players, this is all merely a slight bit of unpleasantness. It would be nice to know if the Eagles had signed Nnamdi Asomugha, or how first-round pick Danny Watkins looked in one-on-one drills against Mike Patterson, but those things will still play out. Missing games; or tarnishing the integrity of the sport with shortened schedules; or, heaven forbid, fake players — that is when a sports labor battle really affects the fans.

The '87 NFL strike. The 1994 baseball strike that resulted in the cancellation of the World Series. The 2004 NHLlockout that cost the sport, its players, and its fans an entire season.

The NFL standoff has gone over 100 days, but for most of us, the clock hasn't even started running yet. Not really.

That's what makes the next week or two so interesting and important. If you've paid only a passing interest in the legal strategies and the posturing up until now, you may want to start paying a bit closer attention now. This next stretch is the final opportunity for this thing to be settled before irreparable harm is done to the 2011 season.

Defining terms: The lack of player movement and practice time already has made a mark on the coming season, but it won't be a permanent stain until training camps are disrupted. Shorter camps, accompanied by two preseason games instead of four, won't ruin the season, but there will be some consequences. The more camp time is missed, the worse the damage will be.

Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged as much last month. Several months into the lockout, with tensions mounting, he wouldn't give a hard deadline for a resolution that doesn't jeopardize camps and preseason games. "But," he told reporters, "obviously that time is coming. ... We're getting close enough now where those will have to be considerations."

That comment reinforces the belief that the league and its players went into this process without any real urgency to get a deal done. March, April, May, and June were always disposable. Lo and behold, they have been disposed of.

Now July is knocking. July was not, and is not, disposable.

This week, NFL owners will gather in Chicago to harrumph over whatever progress has been made in the "secret" (even though everyone knew where and when they occurred) negotiations between Goodell and a handful of owners on one side and DeMaurice Smith and a small group of players on the other. What happens in Chicago on Tuesday and Wednesday could well determine whether this thing ends without serious bloodshed or things get really ugly.

The question is: Are the owners greedy, or are they determined to be the greediest pigs in the history of troughs?

The other question that will be answered is whether Goodell can be an effective commissioner. It was on his watch that the owners opted to tear up a collective bargaining agreement that they had negotiated and approved in 2006 — not because anyone was losing money, but because those darn players were getting too large a share of the revenue they generated.

If Goodell can't herd the pigs toward a resolution in this meeting, it's hard to see what value he has as commissioner. Then again, Bud Selig and Gary Bettman held onto their gigs after presiding over the '94 and '04 disasters.

There has been a lot of varied and contradictory reporting on the state of negotiations. That probably means no one is really getting hard information from the participants, who have agreed not to comment on the talks. Based on the identity of the negotiators, the length of the talks, and the elevated urgency of the timing, it is logical to assume some real progress has been made.

If that progress is undone by the owners' greed this week, this thing could spiral out of control. Goodell and the more reasonable among the owners can't allow that to happen. Another 100 days would be unforgivable.

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