Lockout is a dirty word to sports fans. The last time a lockout occurred in major pro sports, the National Hockey League shut down for the entire 2004–05 season. Not one game played, no champion crowned. Hockey players were prevented from working until they accepted a cap on their salaries. And now, team owners in the National Football League and National Basketball Association are throwing around the dreaded L word.
The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and team owners are meeting with a mediator in Washington, D.C., to try to prevent a lockout. The collective bargaining agreement is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Thursday. If there’s a lockout, fans would not feel the loss right away. The NFL draft is set for April, and fans will still obsess over which teams select college stars like Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton of Auburn and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.
Problem is, Newton, Peterson and co. might not have a league to play in. That’s why the NFLPA is running commercials with its stars looking solemnly into the camera and saying, “Let us play.”
The situation may be worse in the NBA. While the NFL is a $9-billion-a-year industry, NBA games are often played amid rows of empty seats. According to NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver, about three-quarters of the league’s 30 teams are not making money.
Last week’s trade sending Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks, where he’s playing alongside Amar’e Stoudemire, is the latest example of NBA superstars joining forces in major-market cities, which hurts teams in smaller markets. In the NFL, the Green Bay Packers, a small-market team, won the Super Bowl. In the NBA, the Sacramento Kings, a small-market team, may be forced to relocate or go out of business. As the NBA’s Silver told the Portland Tribune, “We believe through shorter contracts, less guaranteed money and a harder salary cap, we can create more parity among the teams in this league.”
NBA and NFL owners think players are making too much money, even though the owners gave the players that money in the first place. When owners can’t prevent themselves from spending excessively, they pressure the players to give money back. NBA players, it appears, will have to make some concessions, because if franchises like Sacramento fold that means fewer jobs for players.
NFL franchises are not in danger of folding. That’s why a lockout makes no sense in football. But as long as owners and players remain far apart, the possibility of NFL and NBA lockouts looms as a devastating one-two punch to the heart of sports fans.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.
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