NFL lockout is owners' onerous mess

For those of you scoring the final hours of the NFL lockout at home and struggling to separate good from evil, protagonist from antagonist, please remember this labor dispute is like any other fight.

The bad guys are the ones who started it.

The owners threw the first punch, a haymaker, by declaring in 2008 they would opt out of the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association after the 2010 season, and the owners have remained the aggressors ever since.

The league's elders instituted the lockout. The league's elders pursued a sweeter deal in prosperous times.

The league's elders ratified a fresh one-way agreement the other night before making their grandstanding announcement designed to fool the fans and leave the players looking like the party denying the American public its most popular game.

Only this misdirection play didn't work, not when the record shows that the fabulously rich men who run pro football created this conflict in the first place.

"I don't understand the NFL owners," Marvin Miller, the 94-year-old labor icon, said Saturday by phone.

"This whole thing started when they used a reopening clause they didn't have to use, demanded that the players give up a billion dollars in salary and, as a reward for giving up that billion, tried to add two more games a season to a group of players that have the highest injury rate in professional sports, the highest rate of serious injury, the lowest salary, and the shortest career."

As baseball's union chief and a founding father of free agency, Miller dramatically altered the landscape of sports. He's been participating in, or carefully observing, labor battles between owners and players for nearly half a century.

"And this NFL one makes no sense to me," Miller said. "It's crazy. Not too long ago this industry was pretty close to marginal, and now income is up to $9 billion a year with every indication it could double or triple over time. Who goes looking for trouble with that kind of trend going on?"

The NFL owners, that's who. They claimed they weren't making enough money on a 60-40 split of revenues in favor of the players, even after taking a billion dollars off the top for expenses, and so they went after the union and Gene Upshaw's successor, DeMaurice Smith, who hasn't let Roger Goodell and his benefactors push him around.

Miller was never a fan of Upshaw's players' association, which he called "a company union too cozy with management." Smith, on the other hand, has received the very seal of approval a young center fielder might crave from Willie Mays.

"I think he's done a remarkable job in a short time," Miller said of Smith. "He's changed the culture there, and he's developed a cadre of leadership among the players. He was properly appalled by the owners' attitudes from the beginning. He didn't have to be taught that this was a terrible thing they were doing."

Smith secured lifetime medical coverage for the players, enhanced compensation for the injured and a reduced offseason and training camp workload for all. But he could protect his constituents on only so many flanks.

Even though NFL players represent 100 percent of the reason fans love pro football -- who really cares which billionaire is gorging himself behind the window of the owner's luxury suite, anyway? -- they now have to settle for less than 50 percent of the cut.

The players deserve more. They get discarded in this sport faster than last Sunday's game plan.

"And their injuries aren't just any injuries," Miller said. "Good Lord, we're talking head injuries and disabling leg injuries. I remember seeing Joe Namath in New York after he retired, just coming across him every once in a while in the street. He walked like a man who was 85 or 90."

Pain and punishment are guaranteed in the NFL, even if the player contracts are not.

Jerry Jones and other like-minded peers should be ashamed of themselves for advocating an 18-game regular season at a time when the 16-gamer already leaves too many bodies broken and brains concussed. But that's the NFL owner, always pushing for more, more, more.

And always reminding the employee who's the boss, too.

Goodell and friends didn't want to merely end the lockout when they disclosed their 31-0 vote -- with Weird Al abstaining in Oakland -- on a 10-year deal of their own design. They also wanted to get in one final shot to the ribs from under the pile, a shot that inspired some players to race to their desktops to fire off jagged-edged tweets.

"There's nothing wrong with owners ratifying the deal and trying to expedite it," Miller said. "But making it public before the players got hold of the agreement is wrong. That's the role of somebody trying to instigate problems with the players, and it was guaranteed to do so.

"Picture yourself as a player who's been terribly provoked, and worried about how long the lockout will last, and suddenly the owners are announcing a settlement and you don't even know what's in the deal. I've never before seen that in my life."

Miller doesn't know any current NFL employers, but he's faced off against enough overprivileged owners in his day to know that power often means more to them than money.

Telling the players they've already approved a deal to reopen for business when those players don't know the exact terms? Imposing a deadline on the players' association to recertify as a union? Inviting the public to cast stones at the modern-day gladiators for delaying their own return to the arena?

Yes, the league was trying to re-establish its power and control over the athletes.

The NFL can do this with words, too. Miller took exception to a quote published in The New York Times and attributed to league spokesman Greg Aiello, who called the lockout "a work stoppage."

The players never wanted to stop working. "A work stoppage traditionally is a way to describe a strike," Miller said, "and in fact there was no strike."

Except for the one launched by NFL owners, the bad guys in this miserable drama from beginning to end.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."