Never underestimate the blinding power of greed.
That is the lesson to be learned from what happened yesterday in New York, where NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw walked out of negotiations, saying the sides were hopelessly deadlocked in their talks to extend the collective bargaining agreement.
In response, the National Football League issued a statement saying it had called for a special owners meeting tomorrow to ''explain how the NFLPA is overreaching." In that statement, the league also said its business year, and hence the free agency period, will begin as scheduled Friday, even if there is no extension.
''This has turned into a tremendous game of chicken," said a management source. ''The richest owners thought they had some middle ground everyone would be thrilled with. They presented it. They weren't [thrilled]."
According to an NFC owner, however, all major issues have been agreed to except the ones that count the most: what percentage of the total gross revenue will be used to establish the salary cap and how the owners will divide the growing pot of local revenue among 32 franchises that do not share equally in it even though under a new deal they'll be charged equally for it when the salary cap is increased.
''How are the 20 middle-class teams, not to mention the low-income teams, going to agree on what percentage of total gross revenues are to be used to establish a new cap when they don't know where the money is coming from?" said a ''middle class" team owner. ''If total revenues are used to establish the cap and the local revenues aren't divided equally, we're using a much larger share of our income to pay player costs than a team like the Cowboys. How's that fair?"
The difference in local revenue generated can be as much as $100 million between a top-grossing team like the Redskins and a lower-rung team like the Jaguars.
The nine teams with the most local revenue argue that some teams do little to maximize that income, so why should more efficient teams be penalized? The other side argues that those owners are minimizing the value of the league itself, which was here before they bought in and will be here when they cash out. They claim owners such as Jerry Jones in Dallas act as if they alone created those burgeoning local revenue streams, as if they had nothing to do with the value of the league brand itself.
Both sides have a point. The problem is, neither side has an agreement with the union, which is insisting it won't settle until it not only gets 60 percent of total gross revenue put into the salary cap but also knows how the local revenue streams will be split among the teams.
The sides are still sparring over Upshaw's insistence on that 60 percent figure, with the owners holding firm at 56.2 percent under the theory that the player salaries are now coming from a much larger pie -- with all football revenues included to establish the cap figure. But at least one NFC owner reiterated yesterday his belief that both sides understand the final number will come down around the 60 percent mark and it is not truly a stumbling block.
Yet according to the league's statement, at tomorrow's meeting ''no discussion of internal revenue sharing will take place."
Such posturing by all sides does not mean that no extension will be reached by Friday, because all sides understand one thing above all else: If there's no extension, there will be chaos, at least in the short term. The salary cap would settle in at around $95 million, and that would result in a multitude of name players around the league being released to get teams under that lower figure.
As of today, roughly 20 teams are at or over that figure. The league office would be swamped with paperwork and would very likely have trouble handling it. One agent speculated that ''five to 10 teams would greatly benefit if there's no extension because they're already so far below the cap, but a team like the Redskins would be cutting players left and right. They couldn't afford to do anything and neither could a lot of teams."
Whether this dark scenario is 11th hour brinksmanship, NFLPA showmanship, or a simmering disaster is anyone's guess until tomorrow morning when 32 NFL owners will decide between common sense and chaos, with just a touch of greed thrown in.