Was NFL Lockout A Game-Changer For Fans?

With the NFL lockout over, teams are scrambling to sign and trade talent, while players prepare to make up for lost time at training camps. NPR's Mike Pesca explains the details of the new contract, and if the lockout could change how fans feel about the game.

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TONY COX, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.

Football is back and not a day too soon for fans of America's most popular sport. With the lockout over, teams have been busy, making moves, signing and trading players, including some big names like quarterback Donovan McNabb, receiver Chad Ochocinco, running back Reggie Bush, just to name three. More deals are coming as training camps kick off in preparation for the first preseason games. Under the new agreement, players will get greater workplace safety, better health care and fewer practices, while the owners, well, they walk away with more money.

NPR's Mike Pesca joins us now to talk about the new contract and the new-look league. Today, though, we want to hear from the fans as well. How did the lockout affect your interest in the game? Give us a call. Our number, 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

As we said, correspondent Mike Pesca, covering sports for NPR, joining us now from our bureau in New York. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA: Hello. How are you doing?

COX: I'm doing great. Listen, the lockout really condensed the free agency period. So, I mean, this has - for a football fan, this has been one of the wildest weeks in memory.

PESCA: Yeah, football ping-pong. And it almost seems like when there is months-long able to negotiate and follow those negotiations, interesting things like this don't happen. For one, the number one free agent, Nnamdi Asomugha was - Asomugha, actually - was said to be going to Dallas, was said to be going to New York. At the last minute - and everything is happening at the last minute - he goes to Philadelphia, and people think, Philadelphia? They already got this great cornerback in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. All of a sudden, Philadelphia, within a span of three days, goes to being one of the premier defenses in the NFL just because of this really quick free agent period.

And then you have - Philadelphia also got back-up quarterback Vince Young, who's backing up Michael Vick. And as you're saying, Donovan McNabb is going to Minnesota. And players are flying all around. The Jets just signed Plaxico Burress today. People didn't really expect that one. You know, if you took a deep breath or a trip to Turkey last week and came back, not only would there be football, but the rosters would look entirely different than they did.

COX: Absolutely. So here's the question, Mike. What does this mean - if I'm a football, which I am - I'm a football fan - so what does this mean for me? Does this portend a good season? Am I excited about what's happening? You know, how am I feeling? How am I supposed to feel?

PESCA: It's intriguing. Usually, fans have teams. They follow the off season. And there's a slow build, and you have a lot of time to process everything and to internally debate, will he make it, won't he make it? But things are just being shoved at you. And so many football fans that I know have expressed to me, you know, I can't wait to get the season to start. I have no idea what Reggie Bush is going to look like in Miami. I can't wait to see how Kevin Kolb is going to quarterback the Arizona Cardinals, who were a great team two years ago, were a terrible team because they had no quarterback. Are they going to go back to being great? I don't know.

So all these - these are fun question marks as opposed to the un-fun question mark that was looming over everything, which is, is there even going to be football? So we went from the depths of depression - oh, my gosh, maybe this most popular American sports won't even happen - to so much happening that it's almost causing, you know, sensory overload, but in a very good way.

COX: We're talking football. This is NPR's TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox. We're talking with Mike Pesca, the NPR correspondent who covers sports. And we're talking about getting back to football and whether or not you feel that you have either lost respect, gained respect, happy, unhappy - whatever it might be.

One thing I did notice, Mike, before we take our first caller, is that the NFL seems to have, as you've already said, benefitted by getting its act together before the season started. And people are excited about this condensed free agency period, so much so, that I'm hearing and reading that the league is considering changing the way they normally do free agency to try to put this excitement in a bottle and keep it going every year.

PESCA: Well, 30 years ago, no one thought that anyone would care about the NFL draft. You know, it was held in a Manhattan hotel. No - three people from the media showed up, you know? And who cares where Archie Manning went or where Dan Pastorini went? He'd show up next year on your team, and you hope he did well.

But then someone said, hey, if we put it on TV, maybe people will watch, on ESPN, on the weekends. And then someone else said, hey, if we put it on TV, we can watch in primetime. Now the draft is this signature off season event. So, recently, someone was saying, hey, you know, this free agent signing period, if we hold all our fire and start announcing a bunch of free agents, we could monetize that. We could turn that into a business.

I would just caution the NFL: Sometimes too much is too much. It doesn't seem like that's even possible in the NFL. But my theory that a lot of people don't grasp is the reason that the NFL is so much more popular than other sports and, in fact, is this dominant and ascendant American cultural institution, is because of scarcity; because of the brutality of the game, the brutality that has caused 75 former players to sue the NFL because of concussions and post-concussion syndrome. It's such a brutal game. You can't play it more than once a week. And it's such a brutal game that you can't play it even for half the year. You know, they were debating going to 18 games. That didn't fly.

But because of the scarcity, every game gets built up like a mini soap opera, and you can kill the golden goose if you give too much. And if these - the draft is something special, and free agency is cool. But if you try to turn everything into a television spectacle, at some point, you're going to turn people off. And they seem to be doing pretty well. And they seem to have rebounded from a potentially very nettlesome period. And they're doing quite well. Let's not go too far right now.

COX: That's a very interesting point that you make because standing by with us right now is Nick from Green Bay, Wisconsin. And, Nick, I don't think you're too happy.

NICK: No. I'm not happy at all. I've lost a lot of respect for the NFL and the players. I mean, we've got the Family Night scrimmage. It's just a scrimmage against the offense against the defense. It's a sellout crowd, and we don't know when it's going to happen. And even if it does happen, I'm not going to buy tickets for it because it's just - they care about money. They don't care about the fans.

COX: But did you think that this is different than how it was before the lockout?

NICK: I think it is. I mean, Green Bay is football town. That's what we live for. But I think there's a lot of the respect lost for the NFL and the players.

COX: All right. Thank you for the call. What about that, Mike? You think there are a lot of others out there who are like him that are upset about this?

PESCA: I've heard that, and it sort of puzzled me. I mean, mostly, I've heard pundits saying it. Who are the losers? People are saying - some people at, say, ProFootballTalk, a website that covers the league. They wrote and said the NFL fans were the losers, and what they said is sort of like Nick was saying. The players and owners take us for granted because they can. We just want football, and we support the league completely. It was an insane act of hubris for the NFL to threaten to take the game away when it was at its peak.

You know, to me, it's negotiation. It's both sides, in an American capitalistic society, wanting to get what they can. So I don't know if that's hubris. That is a business acting as a business. So, I understand that it was dicey or potentially upsetting that there wouldn't be football. But now that there is, two sides went through their negotiations, they played all their cards, they rattled their sabers. But, really, we haven't lost that much. We lost one NFL preseason game, the hall of fame game.

I know in Green Bay they have great traditions where players ride kids' bikes to the stadium, more traditions possibly than any other city. And so he's talking about the green and yellow - the green-gold scrimmage. I don't - you know what, I bet tickets for that sell well. The Packers are the defending champions. Green Bay is thrilled to have the Packers back.

COX: Absolutely. Let's go to Bob who is - actually, hold on a minute, Bob. I'm going to go to Jan from Anderson, Indiana. Jan, welcome.

JAN: Well, thank you so much. Welcome to you.

COX: And congratulations also because I guess your team just signed Peyton Manning to this like super gigantic, forever-long contract so...

JAN: We - yes. We are very happy. And he actually signed it here in my hometown Anderson, Indiana, where the Colts are practicing now.

COX: Well, good for you. What's your question or your comment?

JAN: Sure. Well, my comment is, basically, you ask me how I felt about the, you know, the lockout. You know what, I was frustrated, but the fact that they were able to get it done before the season actually officially started, that's just fine. I would have gotten frustrated if it went on. So...

COX: Well, good for that. You know what, thank you, Jan, for the call. She raises a question for me for you, Mike. It's this: Does it matter what town you are in and what team you root for in terms of how you feel about the end of the lockout? I mean, we have the Super Bowl champions, even though he was unhappy, in Green Bay. Indiana, you know, that's a powerhouse football team. They seem to be happy about this. Does it matter where you support your team?

PESCA: I wouldn't think a big football fan would necessarily be driven by geography or what - they're a fan of how they think of the lockout. But if you want to be strategic, the way the lockout ended, and the fact that it ended early, and the fact that there's a ramped-up preseason and there will be fewer practices as part of the bargaining, some fans know that that's going to hurt their team, specifically fans with new coaches. So John Fox there in Denver, he has a new coach. He might have a new quarterback in Tim Tebow.

He's a little more under the gun than an established coach or an established team like the Indianapolis Colts. You know, Peyton Manning runs that offense. He always has been running that offense. You have to feel good about yourself, and you have to feel, perhaps, at a comparative advantage if you're a fan of the Colts. And if you're a fan of the Cleveland Browns, you're just, you know, depressed that you're a fan of the Cleveland Browns. I don't know if the lockout affects things.

COX: Absolutely. We're talking football with our guest, NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca. We're talking about the end of the lockout, the beginning of football, the changes that have been brought and whether you as fans are happy or are not. We want to hear from you. Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. Let's talk a minute about the deal. Without getting into too much specifics about it, who won, who lost?

PESCA: This was a really interesting deal because what happened was players, essentially, traded money for safety. And, you know, they are making a lot of money. They make $19 billion in revenue. And it used to be the fact that they split it 50-50 with the owners. The owners said that was unviable. You could have e a lot of debates about that. But it was presented that the players will not be making as much money as a percentage of overall revenue as you had been.

So the players agreed to they'll be making about 47 percent of the money. In exchange for that, they got the end of two-a-day practices, which can be very brutal and draining. They got a lot more money in the pension fund. They got - the retired players will get better benefits. They got no padded practices on the same day twice. They got extra days off. They seem to take into account, like no other negotiation, the fact that brain injuries are serious, the fact that football's a really tough sport.

They did not give in to an 18-game season. You know, I looked - I made an assessment on MORNING EDITION a day after it's settled. And I said, in a way, it's the most socially progressive contract I've seen. You know, they had to give up money. They were in a position that they were able to give up money. Few workers, especially few unionized workers can say, that's OK, we're still making millions of dollars. So here's how the workplace will become more safe. But that is essentially what's going on. And I think it would be really interesting, some of the people who were against, maybe I have read that perhaps the losers were coaches. The losers - the coaches like all the extra practice. The coaches like putting their players in pads twice a day in the summer and getting them practice and quote, unquote, "toughening them up."

I wouldn't be too shocked if in 10 years, we look back and we say, you know what, the idea of two-a-day practices, maybe that wasn't such a good idea to begin with. Maybe that idea, the end of two-a-days, maybe that will trickle down to the college and high school and make things a little safer. We don't know. I mean, sometimes things just seem like common sense because they've never been tested, another way has never been tested. So it's quite possible that in a decade, we'll look back at the deal that was made - and this is a 10-year deal - and say it really worked out well for everyone.

COX: We're talking football with NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. So, Mike, I've got a couple of callers hanging on, but I want to read these two emails and then we'll go to some callers and see what they have to say. First one is from Christine. Christine says: Hello, I'm really happy that the lockout is over. I am a huge Packer fan, but I sadly missed the Super Bowl because I was on a plane between Tokyo and Hong Kong at the time, though I did wake up at 4:30 in the morning to see the NFC championship game. Now that I'm living in the U.S. again and there will be football, I'm hoping that the Packers repeat and that I'm able to see it. Well, of course, you are, Christine.

PESCA: So a huge fan who missed the Super Bowl, OK.

COX: Right.

PESCA: That kind of huge fan, uh huh.

COX: Yeah, absolutely. Here's William from Little Rock, Arkansas. I wasn't worried about the NFL season. I knew they'd get things started before the first game. Even if they didn't start a single game, I have the greatest fallback, NCAA football and the Nebraska Cornhuskers. You know, football fans are - they really are into it, you know what I mean? Here's another one. This is Peter from Champaign, Illinois. Peter, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PETER: Hey.

PESCA: Hey.

PETER: Hi. I just wanted to - I'm a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois and a member of the Graduate Employees Organization and Illinois Federation of Teachers. And as a union organizer, I just wanted to say that watching NFL players stand up not only for themselves but for the rights of workers everywhere around the country. I saw NFL players at union protests this winter in the Midwest. They were part of the labor movement, and they made our most visible victory this year, and I just want to say it's only increased my support for them as a fan.

COX: Well, thank you for the call. It does raise the question in my mind, Mike, and it's this: what do we get, the fans? I mean, we know what the players got. We know what the owners got. What do the fans get?

PESCA: Well, the owners would say that the fans get not only football but they get them in better stadiums, which, you know, I think fans would see a game on a - and they do. They go out on an empty field with just a bench to watch a game. I think the better stadiums are not really to the fans but for the players - for the owners' pockets. But, you know, that would be their argument. The fans get 10 years of peace, and we haven't had that in a long, long time. The last deal had an opt-out rather early. And this deal will just have no opt-outs.

It's a simple deal essentially. It just says, we are going to split the money. We're not going to take a little off the top here and a little off the top there like they used to do. It's going to be essentially a 47-53 split. We're going to have these better work conditions. And we're not going to open this up for negotiations for another decade. And as for the caller's point, I have heard the opposite of that. I have heard consternation that the players, these millionaire players who have nothing to do with rank and file workers sort of adopted the tone of the union.

But by the same token, the fact that they hung together and also talked up their union and the union, whenever its back was against the wall, always talked the power of organizing. I think that that did please a lot of union activists, a lot of people who had look at this, say, Wisconsin collective bargaining situation. It's very helpful if you're a fan of collective bargaining to say, well, you like sports, right? All your sports leagues are collectively bargained. Why shouldn't a teacher who's helping to teach your kids have the same rights as Drew Brees and, you know, some people find that a compelling argument.

COX: Absolutely. Let's go to Jackie(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jackie, you're going to be our last caller for the day. She had a question about fans that I did. Jackie, go ahead.

JACKIE: Hi. I just wanted to know why I should remain a loyal fan when the owners and the players have personally done nothing for me.

COX: All right. Well, I think you probably missed a part of Mike's answer just to that question a couple of moments ago. Is it something that you can add quickly to help explain to her, Mike?

PESCA: Fan comes from the word fanatic, which implies highly that it is not rational. It goes back generations. It goes across all class, gender and ethnic lines. There are something ineffable about being a fan. If you had to write it down on paper and make an argument pro and con, it would probably be pretty hard to do so. Why do I root for these guys who don't come from my town, who just wear the uniform of the millionaires? But a lot of people do. Perhaps it harkens back to the same tribalist instincts that founded society, but there's something really powerful in fandom that transcends logic.

COX: Well, I guess we'll have to leave it right there. The football season is about to begin. There is no shortage of opinions about what is going to take place. We will all be watching to see. Mike, thank you very much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Tomorrow, with new technology and online streaming, we'll talk about how we watch TV and what it means for the big TV networks. I'm Tony Cox in Washington.

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