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Bob Ryan

Fans just want football, but both sides mean business

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / February 5, 2011

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DALLAS — Bob Kraft, here’s a simple question for you: Is not making a deal with the NFL Players Association before March 4 unthinkable?

“Yes!’’ he boomed, in a rather authoritative tone.

But I really, really, really want to make your position as one of the most powerful and influential owners in what is, by virtually every measure, America’s most popular spectator sport, perfectly clear.

So, Bob Kraft, how would you term not making a deal with the NFL Players Association by March 4?

“Criminal!’’ he declared. “It would be criminal not to make a deal.’’

Can we be more precise? The answer to that would be no. There is too much at stake, and too much money for too many people to lose, if a new deal is not hammered out before the expiration date of the current collective bargaining agreement.

Commissioner Roger Goodell told us all yesterday in his annual Super Bowl news conference that we have just borne witness to some wonderful stuff — on the field.

“We are concluding one of the greatest seasons in the history of the National Football League,’’ he gushed. “It was really one of the most competitive seasons we’ve ever had.’’

Said season will be capped by a dream Super Bowl matchup featuring the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers. It drips with history and features two truly passionate fan bases. People are predicting it will be the most-watched television program in history.

But the feeling is that of Europe in the beginning of 1914. There are serious tensions between owners and those who represent the players, and Bad Stuff is coming. But rather than a colossal war being set off by the assassination of a Balkan prince, the trigger here is the fact that the NFL owners have opted out of the collective bargaining agreement. The expiration date is March 3. If a new agreement has not been reached by that date, the NFL as we know it will cease, however temporarily, to exist as of March 4. The owners are believed to be in a lockout mode. They say the current agreement is too one-sided. Some will even go so far as to say they simply messed up at the bargaining table last time around, giving away far too much of the store. There is no secret they are asking the players for a give-back.

“The pendulum has shifted too far in one direction,’’ as Goodell put it.

But Goodell & Co. are well aware that the public feels little empathy for either side, that countless fans are framing this as a confrontation between billionaires on one side, millionaires on the other.

“I think it’s clear the fans just want our sport,’’ Goodell explained. “They don’t care about the details.’’

They’re especially not going to care when they hear the commissioner attempt to justify the ownership position by framing it in terms of new stadiums.

“Since 2006, we have not built a new stadium,’’ he said, pointing out that new playpens such as the one in the Meadowlands and the one in which Super Bowl XLV will be played tomorrow evening were in the planning stages when the current CBA was enacted. “That is an issue for us. We need to address this so we can make the kind of investments that can grow the game.’’

Joe and Jane Average cannot relate to what the commissioner is saying. How is a new stadium such as the one being shared by the Giants and Jets a good thing for them? The old Giants Stadium was as fine a place in which to watch a game as has ever been built. Great sight lines. Proximity of every patron to restrooms and concessions was excellent. It was simply great.

Except . . .

Except that it had a relative lack of luxury boxes and premium seating. So what has happened? They built a new one and cannot even sell all the so-called Personal Seats Licenses (PSLs) because the prices are too exorbitant. Longtime fans were priced out. So don’t talk to Giants and Jets fans about the glory of a new stadium. They were quite happy with the old one.

Texas might be different, I’ll grant you that. OK, Texas is different. Football’s a little more in the general DNA down here, and having an over-the-top football stadium is an easier sell than elsewhere.

There are ongoing stadium issues in places such as San Diego and Buffalo, where people support the team but are being told they could lose their teams because the stadiums in question are outmoded. People don’t want to hear that.

Anyway, few fans can work up much sympathy for either side. The Players Association, for example, clings to the current ludicrous policy in which first-round draft picks can get phenomenal money before they’ve ever played a down. The NBA came to the sensible conclusion that a slotted first round was the way to go. No. 1 gets X, right on down to No. 30 getting Z. There is no negotiation. If you’re any good, you can cash in as a free agent after three years. Granted, football careers are shorter and dicier, but the current system is indefensible.

There are other bargaining chips for each side, starting with the proposed 18-game schedule.

The Commish is right. All people want is their football. They would like to hear that people from both sides were being locked in a room and not allowed to emerge until a deal had been consummated.

If I read him correctly, that is exactly what the owner of the Patriots wants, too.

“Once the Super Bowl is over I think we can rev up the process,’’ Kraft maintained. “I really believe the energy is there to make a deal. There is too much at stake not to. People want our product. Look at the Pro Bowl [the ratings for which were surprisingly high], let alone the Super Bowl.’’

Goodell says it’s all about “growing the game.’’ Players say it’s about maintaining the status quo. Fans just want football, period. And Bob Kraft has a partial solution to the negotiating quandary.

“Get all the lawyers out of the room,’’ he suggested.

The clock be ticking.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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