In the days leading up to the Super Bowl in early February, the enthusiasm for the matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, two of the National Football League's most venerable franchises, was dampened by the expectation that it might be the last meaningful professional football game played for a long while.
Management and the players' union had hardened their positions; and, as expected, the lockout began five weeks later. The owners weren't going to let the players play; the players weren't going to play, anyway, unless the owners changed their stances on numerous important fronts.
Now, the lockout has been lifted (for the moment, at least), with a court telling the owners they are in the wrong. But the owners have responded, and they hope to find a higher court that will tell them they are right.
Meanwhile, in the past week and a half, two of the National Basketball Association's most venerable franchises -- the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks -- met in the playoffs for the first time since 1990, when Larry Bird missed a reverse dunk in the deciding Game 5, Patrick Ewing hit a shot-clock beating 3-pointer and the Celtics blew a 2-0 series lead. This year's first-round playoff series was a sign that perhaps the dying former power center of the league might yet be making a comeback. Even a third member of that old gang, Philadelphia, showed some signs of life this season.
Not only did the Knicks make the playoffs and match up against Boston, but now, in Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, they have two marquee talents who've moved the franchise well past the punch line it had become during the Isiah Thomas-and-sexual-harassment-lawsuit era of the past decade.
But, just as in the NFL, the power of the pro hoops game isn't enough to obscure a darkening future. In Game 3 of the Celtics' sweep, ESPN's Lisa Salters interviewed NBA commissioner David Stern, who was grim in his assessment of the NBA's labor situation. Like the NFL was three months ago, Stern's league appears headed for a lockout. Yes, Stern said, the lesson learned from the NFL is to get a deal done. But no, he said, he is not exactly optimistic about the chances of avoiding a work stoppage. In fact, Stern went as far as to say his level of optimism was higher earlier in the season.
Days later, NBA players' union head Billy Hunter said the players have the votes to decertify the union, following the lead of the NFLPA and paving the way for an antitrust lawsuit similar to the one that has the NFL and its players in court.
So, 2011 is the Year of Labor in professional sports, and perhaps that's the natural order of things, the way a forest must burn before it can produce new growth. For years, whether the discussion was the reserve clause or arbitration in baseball, restricted free agency, integration on the field and the front office, the length of a season or postseason, guaranteed contracts, or the ridiculous dollar amounts of contracts, professional sports has been heading for various saturation points.
In the case of the NFL, the evolution toward this point has appeared to be motivated in large degree by greed. The league has been wildly prosperous, the product perfected for the television audience and the pace of American leisure time. Even an ownership such as the Bidwills of Arizona, sometimes ridiculed for its longstanding ineffectiveness, found a way to build a new stadium, host a Super Bowl and even appear in one (2009).
In the NBA, the labor issues are deep and important, and they're clearly more vital to the league's immediate future than the arguments roiling the NFL. The NFL is claiming financial hardship but has refused to open its books to make a convincing case; the NBA in the past 10 years has exhibited much more visible evidence of its troubles. According to Forbes, NBA team values are down from their previous high the past few years, and market stability is where the league appears most vulnerable. The magazine estimated earlier this year that the average NBA franchise is worth $369 million, though 17 franchises lost money in 2009-10, the most since the 1999 lockout.
Three NBA franchises (Vancouver, Charlotte and Seattle) have relocated recently, and a fourth -- the already-relocated New Orleans Hornets -- is now being run by the league. A fifth, the Sacramento Kings, is trying to move to Anaheim and what appears to be an already-saturated market. The Los Angeles area has two teams of its own, one of which is the most powerful club in the league, the Lakers.
Franchises in Detroit and Minnesota have lost value, and the Cleveland Cavaliers lost their marquee relevance when ex-pat son LeBron James took his star power to Miami.
The larger question in the NBA -- and in baseball, which is a conversation for another day -- is whether some form of player rollback is needed. As NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has pushed a discussion of personal conduct and an 18-game schedule as part of his agenda, Stern is expected to demand the partial (or even complete) eradication of guaranteed contracts in the NBA, along with a severe reduction in the share of revenue players receive under the collective-bargaining agreement (also a point of contention between the NFL and its players).
Many fans blanch at the idea of the guaranteed contract, presumably in part because of the perception that automatic money reduces motivation; the professional athlete no longer has to actually earn his salary, in other words. This, though, is a specious argument, especially in an industry of limited career length and high injury risk. Guaranteed contracts offer the player the protection his employers can't be counted on to provide willingly; in a sense, they give a player more freedom to play without fear of injury, and thus more opportunity to give to his team.
But today, with salaries in the tens of millions of dollars, attacking the guaranteed contract is a great public relations move by the league, one that will resonate with hard-hat fans who believe the players have it too easy. But relinquishing their long-fought victory of financial security is not a chip the players would or should give away easily.
Although the focus has been on Goodell's hard-line stance, whispers in the NBA are that Stern is seeking even greater givebacks from the players than Goodell is. If Stern truly wants the players to reduce the length of their guaranteed contracts as well as cut the player portion of revenue sharing from 57 percent to 40, the NBA can expect a very contentious summer.
From the fan perspective, the NBA battle likely will be quite different from the one in football. In the NFL, few fans see much wrong with the sport. Fans were not clamoring for an 18-game season, nor did ratings or team values suggest a broken mechanism. In the NBA, the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls (and even the Knicks) control the map, but the struggling other franchises suggest that the league is in real trouble.
However, even this argument requires more transparency on the part of ownership. As much as the league might argue that the NBA's financial model is broken and players take too much of a cut of revenues, a counterargument can be made that teams are simply mismanaged by their front offices. (Note that the Knicks just picked up Chauncey Billups' entire $14.2 million salary for next year, that the Cavaliers grievously mishandled the James situation, and that the histories of the Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves are riddled with management miscues.) Yet Stern apparently wants the players to take the hit.
What is clear is that, across all sports in this necessary time of evolution and requested rollbacks, the product on the field or court becomes secondary. Meanwhile, the fan can only watch and wait, with the hope that, as the number of potential new markets shrinks, local governments will begin to assert their power and force better terms from their local teams.
What isn't clear is whether, when the dust clears, the product will improve or whether the only change will be in the sizes of the wallets of the principals in the struggle.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.