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NFL's foundation cracking under weight of record stoppage

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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The record came and went. It passed quietly and most didn't notice. Then again, maybe most people didn't want to see it. Too painful to acknowledge.

The NFL labor strife reached a stunning -- and disgraceful -- milestone Thursday. It was Day 58 of the lockout. Thus this is now officially the longest labor stoppage in NFL history.

Roger Goodell has been a frequent target of players during the lockout. (Getty Images)  
Roger Goodell has been a frequent target of players during the lockout. (Getty Images)  
The previous mark came in 1982 in what was one of the nastiest battles between owners and players in the history of sports. That lasted 57 days, from Sept. 20 through Nov. 16. While the length of that strike and this lockout haven't approached the all-time labor meltdown that was professional hockey's (that one lasted 310 days), the NFL's dubious new mark is still a very big deal.

It signals the days of professional football being viewed as the model for labor peace are forever gone. Indeed, the NFL used to openly and loudly brag about how it was unique. Owners and players could successfully cohabitate, cats and dogs living together, and it was those other leagues that had the labor battles, not football.

No longer. The NFL is now just as shameless as the other sports. Football had its big, fat ass sitting atop a mound of gold. To the left, piles of cash. To the right, more piles of cash. In front and behind was fan loyalty and, yep, more piles of cash. How any league can stab prosperity in the eye while much of the country still suffers real job losses and hardship remains inexplicable.

So here is the NFL setting the wrong kinds of records, a stagnant sport, with increasingly angry fans. Some of them might never come back as the lockout drags on.

The only good news for football is that no games have been missed. We're still some time away from that point, but what once seemed impossible becomes more plausible with each passing day. Think of this scenario. The 8th Circuit Court reverses the lower court and the lockout stays on until the players break financially.

A number of agents tell me they believe most players can last without paychecks until mid-October at the latest, but afterward, most will go broke. If the lockout did go into September, the season could be salvaged, but make no mistake -- the players are going to hold on as long as they can. The idea they'll capitulate easily isn't accurate. The animosity between the players and owners is extreme, bordering on hate, and the athletes, being competitors, aren't going to cave without a huge brawl, even if they go bankrupt in the process.

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You've seen some of the animosity with a number of harsh player comments toward Roger Goodell, the commissioner. The dislike isn't a media exaggeration.

If the dispute heads into October or later, the possibility of a season is greatly diminished. The NFL could always do what it did in 1982 and have a nine-game season, but it would be cheapened. Many football historians view the strike-shortened 1982 and 1987 seasons as almost invalid.

There have been reports the owners would shut down football if the 8th Circuit sides with the lower court. I'm told by two league sources that remains a remote possibility. It would be cataclysmically bad PR for the owners if they did.

For now, we remain in this lockout prison, a football hell. The world goes on. Kids go to school, dogs play fetch and Oprah still rules the planet. Meanwhile, the NFL stays dormant.

And sets a new, ugly record every day.

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