On Thanksgiving, I sat with some of my daughter Laura's friends, mostly female, at her home in San Francisco. We were in the middle of watching the third of three football games that day -- San Francisco at Baltimore -- after watching most of the first two games. One of them said, "God, I love Thursday night football.''
Did I mention there were six women in the house? Five play fantasy football. One's a Redskin nerd. "What quarterback will we draft next year?'' she asked me.
Three or four times a month, I'm amazed at the power of the NFL. Like that Thursday in San Francisco. For example, I was on vacation this year, a guy in a hotel in Vienna walked up to me and said, "Think they'll go on strike? Sure hope not." Or I'll be in an airport and someone will ask me fantasy advice (silly them). Or, just the other day in New York, a young kid came up to me and said, "Hey, you're the football guy. What should the NFL do to Suh?'' He was referring to the Lions' Ndamukong Suh, after he stomped on a Packer in a game.
My Sportsmen of the Year are Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith. A bit symbolic, yes, but I did a long story with Goodell last winter for
Goodell was good on access to his world otherwise. I went to a couple of games with him; I flew with him and had long discussions with the notebook away; I sat in on a Super Bowl planning meeting at the league office. But labor talks? No. I tried four times. Email, requests in person, one impassioned plea on the phone ... nothing.
"I have one job and one job only right now,'' Goodell told me. "That's to get a labor deal. I am not going to do anything to put that in jeopardy. I don't care what restrictions we'd put on this. It's not happening.''
One of the owner/mentors Goodell respects most, Jerry Richardson of Carolina, told me in the middle of it all that Goodell could be commissioner for 25 years, and this would be the most important single issue of that quarter-century. Goodell would have to find a way to take some economic issues back from the players, because the owners felt there was an imbalance in favor of the players in the 2006 labor deal.
That brings up Smith. "I could care less who likes me when it's all over, because that's not my job,'' he told me at the beginning of it."In fact, a lot of people shouldn't like me when it's over.'' (And many on the owners' side didn't, but that's another story.) Smith held out for proof that the owners were suffering any sort of financial hardships. He never got it. That put him and the players in position to exact the kind of work rules that, in the words of one hard-nosed NFL coach, "make me want to puke."
Smith and his team of players on the Executive Board of the NFLPA went toe-to-toe on the playing conditions and won big. No more two-a-days in training camp. Only 14 practices all season in full pads. A major ratcheting back of the year-'round offseason programs. Post-career health care increased from five years after retirement to lifetime health insurance for all players. A major increase to old-timers' pensions. (Still not good enough, but for some, a 900 percent increase.)
Neither side wanted to do this again anytime soon. Nor did America. So they did a 10-year deal, which means -- when it's over -- the country will have had 33 straight years of labor peace while the other three major sports have been interrupted by job actions a total of six times.
I could make a case for Aaron Rodgers or Mike Krzyzewski this year, and I'm sure I'm forgetting others. But we have a football obsession in this country. The NFL was on the verge of nuclear winter, and two men, not being greedy to get everything they wanted in negotiations, made it stop. That makes them Sportsmen.