Distrustful owners hold the key to unlocking the lockout

by | CBSSports.com Columnist

The NFL lockout story is in many ways the story of journalism in the 21st century -- today's leak contradicts yesterday's leak which contradicted the leak from the day before, leaving the whole world, well, bored.

In fact, in many ways, this story has been dealt with in too many corners as a shining example of "This stuff is boring and we don't really care about the details, so just give us training camp please," which is how we all end up missing the central theme that has been before us all along:

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The owners like each other far less than they like the players, and trust each other not at all. It's why all the reports of an imminent settlement always sound more like begging than fact-finding.

The latest hint that the problems began, reside and will continue with the owners comes with the news that a number of owners have been balking at settlement developments for months now -- in part because they still harbor resentments over the 2006 deal, and because they want the revenue-sharing rules between themselves to be changed.

The lockout has been covered mostly as your standard management-labor fight because it is easier to get readers/viewers/listeners to pick sides based on their own preconceived notions of unions vs. owners.

But it isn't that at all, and really never has been. This is owners against owners, which makes for lousy TV, lousy reading, lousy debates, lousy everything. Except for the fact that this is the curtain being pulled back on how the league actually operates, it's lousy in general. I mean, who wants Machiavellian political intrigue when you can pretend that it's just Spy Vs. Spy?

Look, the players and owners will agree to something at some point. They always do. But the reason this is such a thorny process is because of an ongoing set of philosophical wars between the owners.

There are feudal lord/hardliners who want the players to be punished for being unionized. Or for that matter, just being players. There are moderates who want the best deal for everyone as long as the game isn't damaged. There are cut-whatever-deal-you-have-to-to-keep-the-doors-open conciliators. There are owners who are indebted up to their eyelids and need the steady income. And there are owners who actually want the matter of wider/universal revenue sharing to be tied to any settlement deal.

In short, this isn't really about whether Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith can get along, and never was. This is about whether Goodell can keep the owners from turning on each other in public while trying to herd them along toward a handshake.

And when we say "herd them along," we mean in that guiding-32-cats-on-meth-in-the-same-direction way.

Goodell has -- well, had, until he decided to do that buck-a-year grandstand play -- a very well-paying job, but it is a miserable job indeed. He has 32 bosses who are all incredibly strong-willed, listen to each other reluctantly and do not share a common vision for the game or its business.

By comparison, Smith has 1,700 bosses who largely see eye-to-eye on the philosophical stuff, but worry about that regular check. It's an easier sell for him, albeit from a position of relative weakness.

In short, this is an owners' problem and always has been. The argument is not about making or losing money, but how much more and how to limit or expand sharing of that money. Thus the reports that a number of owners already hate this new deal even though it is nowhere close to being done tell us that what we have always believed about the process is true:

Specifically, that the process is 32 rich guys fighting with each other over the nature and distribution of an immense pie that would feed them all five generations out.

That doesn't help people who like to make this a referendum on greedy players, or the evils of unions, capitalism in America, or the beleaguered entrepreneur. This is about rich guys who don't trust each other and don't trust anyone who says they should. And that's no fun at all.

Except that it really is. It's how the league structure is actually revealed, and how we can all gain clarity on what makes the game the game. It requires a more advanced world view than "What am I going to do on Sunday afternoons now, damn it?" but it is a spectacular explanation of why seemingly obvious solutions to the lockout problem are never discovered.

It's because this is not about the lockout. It's about the 32 guys holding the lock. Understand that, and you understand it all. Choose not to, and you understand nothing.

Which may have been your preferred position all along. We can't say for sure. We haven't met all of you.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com.


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