Some say what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger. Maybe, but then again being beaten to within an inch of your life doesn’t come without certain side effects. You may come away mentally tougher, maybe even know more about what it takes to avoid it happening again, but the scars have a lasting impact. A lasting impact on your personal reality, and the way others see you as well.
The NFL Lockout will definitely yield a stronger professional football league in America. One that’s run tighter than ever before from a business standpoint, and as an on the field product as well, but at what cost do these improvements come?
Ask Major League Baseball how long it takes to come back from labor wars when your sport is at a pinnacle in terms of popularity. History shows that road is not as easily navigated as one might think.
The player’s strike of 1994 crushed the popularity of professional baseball in the US, and ushered in one of the darkest eras in professional sports history as steroids became the means by which players grew both physically and in terms of popularity.
Sure, both sides will eventually get part of what they want. The owners will still be billionaires, the players will still be millionaires, and fall will bring Sunday football once again. But where baseball failed and where the NFL must now choose to do better is in respecting the game and its fans.
1994 was a magical season in a lot of ways. The Montreal Expos were for one season the best team in baseball. No player in baseball had come close to hitting .400 since Ted Williams, but Tony Gwynn’s .394 average showed he had other ideas. No one had come close to being on pace to touch Roger Maris’ vaunted single season homerun mark of 62, and the games biggest stars were starring down the barrel with the mark in their sites. Stars like Ken Griffey Jr., who never used a steroid—and judging by his physical frame never even thought about them—were on a torrid homerun pace.
How could a game with so much young talent, so many Hall of Fame caliber players, and so much popularity fall so hard?
They let go of the tradition that made baseball special.
Baseball loved its fans and honored its history, and both the fans and history revered what they saw. When you lose sight of that, you lose sight of what the game was and should always be. Baseball walked out on history in the making, and the fans that were on the edge of their seats anticipating every crack of the bat as it happened.
The NFL has to have a new CBA, but how the two sides hash it out will determine a lot about whether or not they will come back to the same three billion dollar a year profit generating machine or not.
How can they achieve both the bottom line and the fan’s respect?
Quite simply, both the players and the NFL cannot lose sight of the game and it’s traditions in times when it has to matter the most.
The draft has become a tradition that feels like a holiday for the diehard fan. The sights and sounds of Mel Kiper and Chris Berman at Radio City Music Hall, as draftees don the cap and hold up the jersey of their new teams, has become a tradition for fans that spend the weekend going through the utter agony or elation of their team’s choices.
While the two sides fight over dollars, contracts and rules it is important to keep in mind how easily the grandeur of traditions can crumble if not protected. Isn’t it funny how little traditions matter when you realize the people that make them important don’t really care about them at all?
The NFLPA cannot afford to pull players away from the draft and its festivities. If they are smart, they will not begin to breakdown the small things that matter so much to most fans who love the game for what it was and should always be.
There aren’t two parties involved in labor negotiations—there are three. The fans, the not so silent third party, are the consumers. Like any other business, if you cater to the customer, even in the midst of the toughest times, they will stick with you.
Fight fair, honor tradition and stick with your fans: The formula that might just save the NFL and its players from repeating the history we have seen on the baseball diamond.