Collier: Fans, reality not part of NFL spat

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Once we get to Midnight in the Garden of Greed and Evil, whether the National Football League insists that it is tonight or extends the deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement with its players union, any semblance of patience or understanding among pro football's frothing fan base should become purely theoretical.

Even the most inveterate channel-switcher with a 10-games-per-Sunday NFL habit should realize what we're talking about here, which is the dubious sustaining of interest in a financial drama with no relationship to or understanding of reality.

No one on this stage, to put it bluntly, is above yanking the game away from the people who built it into a gold mine for them, even if it happens to be because the profiteers cannot compromise on a way to distribute more than $9 billion annually.

Nine billion dollars.

The league's 10-man labor committee, its commissioner, and the powers that be on the union's executive committee convened for a ninth day of talks in the presence of a federal mediator Wednesday in Washington, and, later, all 32 owners huddled in Virginia, all still anticipating the pratfalls inherent on the other side of midnight.

No word on whether anyone took a good look around before those discussions started. No word on whether anyone was there to say, hey, how 'bout some perspective? Look outside your own preposterous financial Elysium to, umm, reality.

Unions are under attack in Wisconsin and in Ohio. Bus riders are about to be stranded in Pittsburgh. The Fresno police force is taking on volunteers. Funding for education, one of the last social engines preventing America from falling hopelessly behind globally, is being slashed. In the Post-Gazette Tuesday, in the last installment of his riveting op-ed series "Life in the ER," Dr. Thomas Doyle described earthquake victims still dying in Haiti "for the lack of $5 worth of antibiotics."

Five dollars.

There is no simple math to facilitate understanding any of this. I could tell you that 32 owners and 1,696 players splitting $9 billion comes to $5,238,649.59 per individual, or that even with the owners taking $2 billion off the top for operating expenses (that's their position), it still comes to $4,074,505.24 per person, per year. But that's obviously a ridiculous oversimplification.

This is not: No NFL player is making less than six times the median household income in the United States. The median NFL income is just less than $800,000, 17 times median household income. Half the league's players earn more than that.

That's the union. Management's bottom line, unlike almost everyone's, is up better than 40 percent since 2006, according to Forbes Magazine.

So please, from this point, whether the deadline stays at midnight or gradually mutates into Sept. 8, the night the Green Bay Packers should play host to someone to start the 2011 NFL season, avoid public discussion of the league's financial "problems" because they are publicly abhorrent.

The health issue is another matter entirely, and any result in which the union trades the long-term health and immediate safety of its members for more cash in the short term would be a sad spectacle, as would any capitulation on the matter of an 18-game schedule. There's no way a union, even one where the rank and file is blanketed in bling, can say with a straight face that it is protecting its members when it agrees to an additional eight quarters of mayhem. A 16-game schedule was a terrible idea 23 years ago, and the game's not getting any easier, even for the people who retire in relatively decent physical health.

Former NFL players are churning a suicide rate six times the national average, the latest being former Chicago Bears standout Dave Duerson.

Players are covered by the league's insurance for five years after they retire, but many don't present serious psychological disorders until much later. If the union comes away without a seriously upgraded health plan, it will have failed conspicuously. The union has come to accept that most careers are short, that salaries are not guaranteed, that the work is dangerous and possibly debilitating, physically, mentally, emotionally and sometimes tragically. That seems to me worth talking about, unlike just about everything else you're going to hear about this between now and kickoff.

We should all hope this oleaginous argument is brief, and that we get back to worrying about the far greater threat, the looming horror of an NBA labor impasse, in which the workers have seen wages drop some 10 percent to an average of $3.4 million, or barely $41,000 per game.

Yeah, it's a coal mine.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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