Fans to NFL: Let the games begin

Mike Wise
Columnist July 21, 2011

Thank goodness, the lockout is lifted and the NFL is unofficially back. Okay, now recertify, ratify, do what you need to do to ensure training camp opens Wednesday.

We’ve already waited too long.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

We’ve given you more than five months to figure out how to fairly divide the $9 billion we annually spend on your league.

That’s right, we — the people who have made you the most popular and lucrative sport in the country, who have been patient while you’ve fought over sums that dwarf our annual incomes.

All we ask is that you play your games, and now, hours after NFL owners approved a new collective bargaining agreement with players, it appears both of you have wised up just in time not to lose a single regular season game to labor stoppage.

Heraldic trumpets, please. Oh, also, in the time your lawyers on both sides held us captive and even in the time it took your leaders to sell your constituencies on the new pact, remember this:

We have always had just one clause in our collective bargaining agreement with you.

You play, we show up to your games or watch at home — in startling numbers.

Since 1987, the last time games were lost during an NFL season, it’s been a simple covenant: You commit, we commit. It’s why you’re the national pastime now and baseball is not.

We’ll bake in 110-degree heat indexes just to watch practice. We’ll queue up to pay your exorbitant prices. Yes, Chad Johnson, we’ll follow your Twitter feed. We’ll buy your pricey concessions and even bring our own Sharpies when we ask for your autographs.

Again, all we ask is that you play. Just play.

And with the ball now in the NFL Players Association’s court and what agent Leigh Steinberg described as the “Oklahoma land rush of free agency” about to begin, it’s time we got our due for letting you hold our favorite sport hostage for most of the summer.

“This deal will settle,” began Steinberg, the most prominent NFL agent of his day, “but it’s sort of like sausage; you might love to eat it, but don’t focus too strongly on watching it be made. There will be a few last-minute twists and turns.”

Fine. It can’t be any worse than what we were put through this offseason.

For at least the first couple of months of posturing, we were forced to swallow the Armageddon theory — that each of your sides were so far apart an entire NFL season could actually be in jeopardy for the first time in 24 years.

One of the most disturbing images in sports this year was watching a solemn Kevin Mawae and other players sitting in what amounted to a jury box a couple of months ago, being interviewed by ESPN’s George Smith, about the grave injustices facing them at the hands of greedy owners — as if there were any other kind.

If Mawae were a GM plant foreman from Hamtramck, Mich., he would have elicited our sympathy. He is not. He is a well-compensated NFL lineman, which made him just a little easier to root for than an exasperated Jerry Jones, milling outside a hotel conference room, usurping Roger Goodell’s clout.

This entire, five-month drama was essentially the cast of the “Unforgiven”; few redeeming characters live at the end of a movie where $9 billion is haggled over in this depressing economy.

Look, we have had enough. And you must have sensed it, because all of you are suddenly coming to your senses.

With unemployment (for non-elite athletes) hovering around 10 percent in America, we somehow stomached Adrian Peterson’s sad “slavery” analogy and moved on.

We heard Drew Brees’s ignorance regarding the plight of many retired NFL players, some with mangled limbs and damaged brains, who can’t afford to pay their medical bills incurred from injuries suffered in the game years ago, when, yes, they were paving the way for Brees to make the money he makes today.

We even overlooked a score of arrests this offseason because, deep down, we knew that was a fraction of your workforce, and that, by and large, NFL players are among the most congenial, educated and socially conscious of most big-time athletes, certainly better than most major leaguers and NBA players. (Yes, an age rule actually has long-term benefits for the product.)

All we wanted in return for our tolerance is a season — all of it. And, by gosh, it appears you have given it to us.

“No one does anything in football until the very end,” Steinberg correctly predicted in February at the Super Bowl, adding the NFL would only reach agreement when there was “imminent pressure of disaster.”

Apparently, missing the Hall of Fame Game counts as “imminent pressure of disaster.”

“Ultimately,” the agent added, “football is way too smart to follow baseball, basketball and the other sports that were self-destructive. So this deal is going to get done and you better get ready for some football.”

Can’t wait — not one more minute.

Seriously. We, the people who gravitate to your sport 2-to-1 over anything else in this country, cannot wait another second before everyone puts pen to paper and gives us a season we deserve after so much ado over your dollars this offseason.

We’ve lived up to our end of the agreement between fans and your league. And if it’s all minor details from here — if training camp indeed starts next week and no games are lost — thank you in advance for finally living up to yours.

You had us worried for a moment — though you did beat Congress, which has yet to raise the debt ceiling so we can avoid defaulting to countries we owe trillions.

Hey, every nation has its priorities, and football is ours.

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