When the baseball strike of 1994 hit, I was absolutely positive it would not last. I was a young teenager at the time, and the idea of my favorite sport being taken away from me was unfathomable. It wouldn't happen. It couldn't happen. Whatever collective bargaining was, it wasn't going to take away the long-standing game of baseball. They'd been playing this game of baseball for over 100 years; the World Series had seen 93 fall classics.
I couldn't comprehend Donald Fehr, a pale man with a terrible comb-over, talking about a salary cap. I just wanted to watch my favorite game. They couldn't take it way. They wouldn't take it away. On August 11th, 1994 they did. It was incomprehensible.
When the player's strike hit, Tony Gwynn was hitting .394. Matt Williams was on pace to break Roger Maris' single season home run mark. Two of the most important marks in the annals of baseball were within reach; surely they wouldn't stop Gwynn and Williams. The Montreal Expos (the Expos!) were in first place in the National League East. They had been a laughing stock for as long as I had followed baseball. Surely baseball wouldn't betray such a depraved fan base.
In September, the hammer fell and my childhood ended. I remember the SportsCenter when it happened. There had been speculation for days that the owners, feeling their negotiations with the players were at an impasse, were going to vote to cancel the rest of the season. They did. The vote was 26-2. I still remember the two teams who voted against it: the Baltimore Orioles and the Cincinnati Reds (and I didn't even have to use Wikipedia to look them up). My dad and I agreed that these were the only two teams we could ever root for again. I was even willing to put aside Marge Schotts' (owner of the Reds) alleged affinity for Hitler.
Those were tough days in the fall of 1994. As youth, we cling to things that are bigger then ourselves. We need to feel like we belong to the larger world. We need to define ourselves. When baseball canceled the reminder of its 1994 season, including the World Series, I lost a part of my youth. The world could be a cruel place. It could take from you the things you love, even the things that seemed too large to ever disappear.
I fear the same thing may happen to a new generation.
The National Football League is a nine billion dollar revenue-generating giant. It is infinity times more popular than every other league in America. Last year's Super Bowl drew more than 110 million viewers. It's superstars are recognized the world over. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are a joy to watch. Aaron Rodgers has ascended to the join their ranks as one of the premium quarterbacks in the league. Micheal Vick is electrifying. Like baseball in 1994, there are great story lines all around the game.
Surely, those who shepherd the National Football would not, could not, take it away.
At the moment, they have. Yet most fans seem to think the lockout will be over before the season begins. I think we are being naive. Football, like baseball, can be taken away from the fans. As I failed to do in 1994, we must be ready for this reality. The powers that be seem set on leading us in that direction.
Every time DeMaurice Smith speaks, Roger Goodell must want to punch a wall. Smith lays on the invective like few other leaders in the sports world. The man needs a lesson in diplomacy.
Roger Goodell, on the other hand, appears strangely aloof. He seems to have taken a page from Bud Selig's book on how to behave like a commissioner who can't connect with fans and appear so meek that he inspires zero confidence in his leadership.
I fear the NFL lockout will become the baseball strike of 1994. The thought that football could not possibly go away because of its extreme popularity is exactly why it can go away. The lords of football think that because their sport is so revered, that even if the 2011 season is affected by the lockout, fans will still return when the lockout ends. The NFL can afford to take a hit. The millionaire investor who loses half his wealth is still in a stronger financial position than the person making $50,000 a year who suffers the same loss.
I could not imagine baseball going away in 1994. In 2011 fans are underestimating the possibility of the NFL being taken away. They had best grow up and prepare themselves for the possibility of a long and sustained absence.