By Frank Deford
April 14, 2011

Do you get the feeling that the NFL labor negotiations harken us back to nothing less than the Vietnam peace talks? Any minute now, I expect the two sides to start arguing over the shape of the table. Both sides have essentially said yeah, we sure do want to talk, only not actually to one another until finally a judge has ordered them to meet again, pretty please, starting today.

If you haven't been paying attention, which is to your credit, the whole business has been turned over to lawyers. After the players association decertified itself as a union, the owners locked out the players, which prompted some -- including the glamorous likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning -- to sue the league individually. Meanwhile, the league countered by asking the courts to call the whole decertification ploy a sham.

So while negotiations resume, the judge in Minnesota -- never mind why Minnesota, except that's supposed to be an advantage for the players -- might herself eventually decide whether she should grant an injunction and end the lockout. The league figures, go ahead: the NFL could then go to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which is supposed to favor big business. Everybody is looking for home-court advantage.

It's so ridiculous you just wish it could be like the United States government, where lobbyists could come in and get things done.

Most of you have heard of the prevent defense. Effectively, what the owners are doing is running a prevent offense. Time is on their side. For two reasons. First, the average career-span of an NFL player is about three and-a-half years, and they only get paid during the season. Brady and Manning aren't going to miss receiving a paycheck. A lot of lesser lights are. It's going to be hard to keep the players together as the season approaches.

Secondly, invariably in these sports disputes, the public forgets the issues. The cry simply goes up: never mind your argument, just give us our circus. Usually in the past what we heard was: a plague on both your houses. Now it's fashionable to say: it's just a bunch of billionaires fighting millionaires. The owners know that as the season approaches, the fans will merely become impatient, and the players will lose what sympathy they originally had.

After all, in a bad economy, the owners picked the fight even though everybody in the NFL is in clover. The owners plead financial distress, but won't open their books. The players appeared to be the victims. But as long as the owners, abetted by the players, can keep the dispute tied up in court so that it's not players vs. owners but lawyers vs. lawyers, the original issues will be obfuscated. And forget what is right or wrong or fair or unfair, the public simply will demand compromise for compromise sake. The owners' prevent offense will win the day.

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