published Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

NFL troubles hit home

Chattanooga-area football players and others are closely watching closely as the likelihood of a lockout looms.

As the clock strikes midnight tonight the NFL's collective bargaining agreement will expire and owners are expected to lock out players. How long the lockout lasts and the resulting new CBA will effect not only current and former players, but a wide-ranging list of others, including officials, newly-drafted players, business owners near the stadiums and of course fans.

The NFL is more popular than ever, highlighted by the fact the league reported a $9 billion profit last year and last month's Super Bowl was the most-watched television show of all time.

If the work stoppage continues into the season, it would mark the first time since 1987 that the country's most popular sport lost regular-season games. In an industry with such mind-boggling financial numbers, any week without games would result in revenue losses amounting to about $400 million per week, according to NFL estimates.

It will also put a halt to the paychecks of active area players like former Baylor offensive lineman Jacques McClendon, who just completed his rookie season with the Indianapolis Colts, as well as City High’s Tony Brown, a veteran defensive lineman with the Titans and former Hixson defensive back Josh Bullocks, who is now with the Chicago Bears.

Attempts to reach those players for comment were unsuccessful.

If the league does lock out the players, everything would stop except the NFL draft on April 28-30, and any interviews or workouts teams hold for college players leading up to the draft. But after that, teams would no longer be allowed to contact their picks or sign undrafted rookies.

All of which means players like former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga cornerback Buster Skrine, who likely moved up several draft boards with an impressive NFL combine earlier this week, could be drafted, then have no contact with their new team until the labor dispute is settled.

“Oh, I'm definitely curious to find out what happens,” Skrine said. “I think they will eventually work something out, and soon because the thought of not having mini camp for rookies is crazy.

“To be honest, none of us at the combine were talking about the lockout that much. We were too occupied with the team interviews and our workouts. All I can control is to continue to train and make my stock rise as high as possible. Most of us college guys just want to get drafted and begin working out and getting ready to make a team. The rest is out of our hands.”

Skrine added that should there be a prolonged lockout, he will train near his home in Georgia, but that he realizes each missed day puts him and other rookies further behind the learning curve.

The biggest sticking point all along has been how to divide the $9 billion revenue the league reported to have earned last year. That includes what cut team owners should get up front to help cover certain costs, such as stadium construction.

Other sticking points during negotiations include a rookie wage cap, a push by the owners to expand the season from 16 to 18 games, reducing the preseason schedule by two games. Also, benefits for retired players is at issue, including medical insurance coverage and players' league-backed 401k retirement funds.

Former NFL players whose career spanned four years or more, are have full access for them and their families to the league's medical coverage. Its 401k plan allowed players to put up to $15,000 each year into their retirement and the league would double whatever amount a player invested.

“I'm not looking at the negotiations the same as an active player,” said Eddie Moore, the former South Pittsburg star who played linebacker at Tennessee and then with the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos and is now an assistant vice president and marketing leader at a bank in his hometown. “They're looking at it as a potential loss of job opportunities. My main concern are my medical benefits for me and my wife and daughter and my 401k. I'm not going to be making any more money from the league, so I want something to get done quickly so my medical benefits aren't interrupted.

“There are so many different people involved in this and we all want what's going to benefit us the most, of course. The owners, current players, and guys like me who are retired.

“I can see it from all sides because I work with business owners every day and I know the team owners are the ones putting up the most risk. But it's not like its Taco Bell and the owners can just go out and hire somebody else off the street to do the job of the players. Both sides are going to have to give a little to get things resolved.”

Several former players from the Chattanooga area — Moore, Marion County's Eric Westmoreland and Howard's Terdell Sands — agreed that the medical insurance for retired players is their main concern because of their list of past injuries as well as the fact that their families are under the coverage umbrella.

For instance, Moore had 11 surgeries during a four-year playing career which ended in 2007 because of injuries, including six on his right knee and two on his left, and he said those injuries as well as others are now beginning to take a toll as his body gets older.

“The players made a lot of money but they made the owners even more,” Westmoreland said. “And we were the ones who abused our bodies and now we all have problems from those days. The league should definitely make sure its former players are taken care of in that way.

“We all know this thing is going to get done. There’s too much money on all sides to be lost for them not to. But right now, we’re all just like the fans and everybody else. All we can do is wait and see how long it takes and hope for the best.”

about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...

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Stewwie said...

[The NFL is more popular than ever, highlighted by the fact the league reported a $9 billion profit last year...]

[The biggest sticking point all along has been how to divide the $9 billion revenue the league reported to have earned last year.]

I guess the NFL was able to get by with no expenses?? I'm thinking Mr. Hargis meant to say "revenue" in both instances.

The biggest mystery of all is how the NFL was able to set itself up as a non-profit. The franchises are for-profit, but the league itself is not.

March 3, 2011 at 8:57 p.m.
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