Back players, not owners, in NFL mess

The business of being a fan can get complicated during a lockout. The same fan who understands that whining billionaire owners are nearly impossible to embrace also understands that he or she would gladly sign up for the life and wage of a professional athlete, givebacks or no givebacks.

So if you are looking for a user's manual to govern your feelings during this NFL stoppage of offseason play, here is one suggestion from one page that should bring clarity to your thoughts:

When in doubt, root for the players to beat the owners by three touchdowns or more.

Yes, owners occasionally make a valid collective-bargaining point in baseball, basketball and hockey. But just like the customer is always right in retail, the player is always right in football (unless, of course, he's in charge of Rashard Mendenhall's Twitter account).

The NFL chews up and spits out its athletes faster than the other leagues do, if only because pain and suffering are guaranteed at a time when too many contracts are not. Pro football often leaves its safeties, linebackers and guards a concussed and mangled mess, a truth demanding maximum pay and benefits during their relatively brief careers as able-bodied employees.

As it stands, Roger Goodell and his constituents have yet to present a convincing case for change in the way $9 billion is divvied up. The NFL is a run-amok machine straight out of one of those never-ending sci-fi films, an insatiable transformer bent on world domination. The league can slap its logo on almost anything and make a killing just like that.

But apparently it's not enough to take in a lot of money when you can take in a whole lot more. Never mind that the NFL's signature event, the Super Bowl, can draw more viewers and advertisers than any program in the history of American TV.

The system is broken, management screams, and the players are supposed to help their bosses fix it.

The same players who pay a blood sport's extreme physical price, and who are being asked to add two games and countless additional injuries to the regular season schedule.

This is precisely why right-minded observers backed Darrelle Revis in last summer's standoff with the Jets. The cornerback had a contract, but he also had a firm grip on the obvious: He needed to get his while the getting was good.

Revis knew he was one unfortunate turn of an ankle or twist of a knee away from being as expendable as his former teammate, Leon Washington. "Look at the Leon situation," Revis said last year. "They were working on his contract, and he broke his leg and missed the season, and now he has no stability, no comfort zone, no anything."

Revis eventually got his stability and comfort zone, the rarest of commodities in the NFL, where one disappointing season or one damaged ligament can lead to a restructured contract, a paycut, or worse.

Nobody is totally insulated from the harsh terms of NFL engagement, not even golden-boy quarterbacks and franchise-shaping stars. Phil Simms led the Giants to the playoffs in 1993, underwent shoulder surgery, and returned in the spring ready to resume his career until the day Dan Reeves summoned him into his office.

Simms thought he might have to sign some footballs for charity, and Reeves fired him for salary-cap reasons instead.

At 30, a healthy Eli Manning faces no such fate. The Giants quarterback also represents the pro football minority; he's a player with a big contract and no true job security angst.

But Manning and some of his receivers are left to pitch and catch at Hoboken High School because team owners want to make sure Manning remains the exception, not the rule. NFL barons want to cut into player salaries, and they want a bigger piece of revenues to cover escalating stadium costs in an economic environment increasingly hostile to the calls for taxpayer support.

Too bad. The players are the product, and the only reason millions of fans care about the NFL in the first place. Those fans spend their hard-earned money to see unique and highly-skilled athletes perform at a near-super-human level.

They don't pay to see the billionaires entertaining country club buddies in their luxury suites, dipping something or other into their Grey Poupon.

The owners don't have to worry about taking a series of potentially life-altering hits, or about spending their retirements in dimly lit rooms to ease the stress on their battered brains.

That's the players' problem, their Faustian burden to bear. The young man who pursues an NFL career does so understanding that the risks can outweigh the rewards.

But that athlete should at least be fairly and heavily compensated for those risks over what is often a painfully short time in the league. So if you need a little guidance navigating the madness of pro football's labor strife, just remember to do what you do on Sunday afternoons.

Root, root, root for the players, the only participants who make the game worthwhile.

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