Battle lines drawn

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:46 AM ET

TORONTO - It seems ludicrous that the National Football League could shut down.

But then, there was a time when people thought it was goofy to speculate that the world was actually a ball, too. And, we all know how that turned out.

So, ludicrous could happen as soon as Thursday--a $9-billion US industry shuttered while exasperated fans listen to jet-set owners and Lexus-bejewelled players squabble.

The NFL has become the most popular pro sports league in North America and its economic health has never been better. But the relationship between owners and players has seldom been more fractious.

The players' association has asserted for months that the owners are building a financial war chest, intent on a lockout to back demands for financial concessions.

The league and union went more than two months without formal bargaining but finally shut down the rhetoric and began talking face-to-face more than a week ago.

The major issue is how to divide the biggest lolly in sports. The owners want 60% of revenue while the players want to maintain closer to the current 50/50 split.

It's complicated. The owners claim the players already get 60% rather than 50% -- on the other hand, the owners have refused to make public a full financial disclosure to back those claims.

"The players have asked repeatedly for financial transparency and economic information. We have been told publicly and privately that detailed financials are 'none of your business,'" George Atallah, assistant executive director for external affairs at the NFLPA, said recently.

As partnerships go, it's like the Hatfields inviting the McCoys to tea--somebody's going home wearin' the pie. There's disagreement between players and owners (and even between owners and other owners) on what should be included in league revenues.

Owners want to re-define what revenues they share with players, asking for up to an 18% rollback in salaries according to players' association sources. They want some of the revenue players are getting to cover costs associated with building and maintaining stadiums and facilities. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith says a rollback to a 40-42% share of all revenue would represent the smallest percentage of a players' share by any professional sports union.

Owners see these housekeeping items as being of mutual benefit to the game.

Players see them as good for the owners' pot of gold.

So, to review: They can't decide on what the revenue is, they can't decide on the players' share and while the two sides have reportedly made progress this week it is an indication how far the divide remains when they can't even agree on whether the players' percentage of revenue has been going up.

Recently, Smith insisted the players' percentage has declined the past five years. A day later, Goodell claimed precisely the opposite.

When talks were suspended for the weekend, Cohen noted "very strong differences remain" with the two sides set to resume mediation Tuesday.

Among the other significant points in negotiations: A rookie wage scale; the owners' push to expand the regular season to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; and benefits for retired players. Both sides were co-operating with federal mediator George H. Cohen, but all of the above are major stumbling blocks.

The league, in the wake of rookie deals such as Sam Bradford's $78-million windfall, want a cap on entry level contracts similar to the system in the NBA or NHL.

"The status quo means the continuation of outrageous sums paid to many unproven rookies instead of shifting significant portions of that money to proven veterans and retired players," Greg Aiello, the NFL's spokesman noted recently.

Atallah argues it's just another cash grab and that when the union offered a proposal, the league turned it down based "on unwillingness to guarantee that the saved rookie money would go toward veteran players."

And, so they gain ground like Jimmy Clausen on the offence. The league claims player compensation has doubled in the past decade, and that while revenue is higher, the costs are escalating even quicker. Goodell says investment in new technology and spreading the game internationally requires the players give up the status quo.

Atallah doesn't buy it, citing a nearly $2-billion renewal for the rights to Monday Night Football. In 2010, 65 of the top 100 watched sporting events in the U.S. were NFL games.

"Revenues are up. Sponsorships are up ... all signs and indicators point to extraordinary success and rapid growth for the business of foot-ball," Atallah noted on ESPN. "They've asked for more than a $1-billion reduction in the players' portion of revenues in the first year alone of a CBA ... in a league with no guaranteed contracts ... and injury concerns at their peak."

So, labour Armageddon looms. "These are unusual times," Aiello admitted.

More than 500 players will be stuck in free agent limbo. Another 74 players would lose more than $140 million in bonuses due in March.

There can be no workouts, practices or communications between coaches and players after Thursday. But there will be finger-pointing and $9 billion of blame to throw in each other's faces. Messy. Very messy.

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Roger Goodell

Commissioner of the NFL ... Age 52 ... Chosen to succeed Paul Tagliabue in 2006 ... Has been described as "the most powerful man in sports" ... Son of a New York senator ... Began working with NFL in 1982 as an administrative intern under Pete Rozelle ... Became an assistant in the league PR department in 1984.

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DeMaurice Smith

NFLPA executive director ... Age 47 ... Elected to a three-year term in August to succeed the late Gene Upshaw ... Washington-based trial lawyer who has represented Fortune 500 companies ... Has ties to President Barack Obama and U.S. attorney general Eric Holder but has no labour law experience.


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