Plan would squander NFL fans' good will

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walked to the podium last April and uttered the words football fans had been waiting to hear.

"With the first pick in the 2010 NFL draft," Goodell announced, "the St. Louis Rams select Sam Bradford, quarterback, Oklahoma."

So much had gone into the moment: Bradford's development as a player, his successful recovery from shoulder surgery, the Rams' 1-15 record the previous season, months of mock drafts and speculation.

A prime-time television audience had watched Bradford speaking on a phone to someone -- the Rams, presumably, but no one knew for sure -- while the team used nearly all of its allotted 10 minutes before making its selection.

Would the Rams follow through with the choice as expected, or might Bradford become the next Aaron Rodgers, standing by helplessly while the sporting world watched?

Bradford rose to his feet and smiled when the announcement finally came. There were handshakes and hugs. Bradford beamed before fitting a Rams hat onto his head. He carried a Rams jersey out to the stage, where Goodell greeted him. They posed for the cameras while fans took in a scene that has become a rite of spring in the NFL.

What a misguided shame it will be if prevailing pettiness between the NFL and its locked-out players robs fans of this moment, too. It could happen.

An NFL Players Association plan to discourage players from attending the 2011 draft would not sit well with the paying customers. A reality check is in order: Fans caught in the crossfire of this labor dispute will naturally flee if the sniping becomes unbearable.

Fans have wearied of the labor mess for months, but at least they knew the draft would go forward as it always had, minus trades involving veteran players. The draft will command attention with or without the top college prospects in attendance, but pressuring them to stay away seems like the height of pettiness.

Who could possibly benefit from such tactics?

  • Not the college players, who dream about hearing their names called from inside Radio City Music Hall.

  • Not the NFLPA, which would tick off fans and gain no traction in the court of public opinion. Players have legitimate beefs with ownership. Dismissing those beefs outright becomes a whole lot easier if the players lower themselves to these sorts of tactics.

  • Not the fans who pay for the tickets, merchandise and TV ratings that underwrite everything. As tough as the 2005 draft was for Rodgers, his experience while sweating through the first 23 picks became an integral part of his story -- and of his ultimate vindication. That never would have happened to the same degree had Rodgers been off-limits to viewers while the drama built around him.

The NFLPA naturally wants to make life tougher for the league in big and small ways during the lockout. That is understandable, but urging players to avoid such a quintessential fan-friendly event would come off as yet another slap in the face for the people paying the bills.

The comments section associated with the ESPN.com news story is brimming with fan backlash.

"This is wrong," Lancer VI wrote. "These rookies would be robbed of one of the highlights of their careers; getting drafted. The family in the audience, going on stage, putting on the hat, holding up the jersey. I'm with the players in this fight with the owners, but don't use these rookies as a pawn and rob them and their families of a life-long memory."

This from flanpaw42: "This is one of the most petulant and childish things I have ever witnessed."

And from whojoho71: "When does Arena football start?"

Viewers eager to see their favorite teams' newly minted first-round choices would bristle at the pettiness if the NFLPA succeeded in keeping away players. Both sides in this dispute have already come off as insensitive to fans, a point Sirius' Adam Schein drove home without mercy.

The league appears strong enough to weather a labor dispute without incurring permanent damage. There's still no need for either side to squander good will. This sort of thing just feels wrong and gratuitous.

Now is the time for someone to claim the high road. It seems almost quaint in the current environment to reflect upon what Goodell said to fans attending the draft and watching on television last year.

"One of the things that makes this draft so great is it's about hopes and dreams -- for our players, for our teams and for you all, the fans," Goodell said. "We have some great players here tonight, as you have already seen. They represent the past, the present and the future. Thank you to all of them and to all of the people who have played football. Thanks for making our game very special."