Like millions of Americans, I cheered when the NFL lockout ended this week. Listening to the posturing and spins of both the NFL’s owners and players and sifting through the mind-numbing litigation over the work stoppage was as painful as stubbing your toe for three straight hours. And for someone who covers sports for a living, the resolution of the lockout — NFL players and owners agreed to a 10-year collective bargaining agreement in which the owners would receive a slightly higher share of overall league revenues in exchange for some concessions to the players, such as lighter practice loads and a new injury-protection benefit — is surely something to celebrate.
Or is it? I’ve always been as big a football fan as the next guy, but at some point this summer, I started to picture a world without kickoffs in the fall — and actually liked what I saw. Spending September afternoons at the playground with my kids, rather than watching the overgrown ones who play pro football, really did start to sound appealing. In that vein, maybe more parents would teach their kids the alphabet instead of studying Green Bay’s Xs and Os. Maybe they’d volunteer at a soup kitchen rather than haul pretzels out of their own. Instead of spending so much time fretting about their fantasy teams, maybe people would focus more on their real lives.
O.K., perhaps that’s just wishful thinking. I know that millions of fans would have missed the psychic benefit the game provides, whether it’s the temporary escape from everyday difficulties, the bonding with family and friends or the adrenaline rush when your favorite team kicks a last-second field goal. And I realize that if I were a concessions worker at an NFL stadium or a guy who owned a bar whose livelihood depended on game-day revenues I’d have a much different perspective. But if you take a step back, couldn’t you envision Americans enjoying a little break from football? (Not to mention the players, who are putting their long-term health at risk every time they step onto the field.)
Let’s face it: the amount of time fans devote to following pro football has gone overboard. In an era when television networks whine about dwindling audiences, the NFL keeps setting ratings records. Fantasy football is a multibillion-dollar industry, and TV and the Web provides a near limitless stream of stats and analysis that can make every fan feel like a general manager.
The relative scarcity of NFL on-field product turns many of us into addicts. There are only 16 regular-season games, so each one counts. An overwhelming majority of the games are played on just one day, Sunday. So these Sundays breed appointment viewing, and the games air from 1:00 p.m. to nearly midnight on the East Coast. They are cold-blooded killers of your day.
Now that football is back, the game has pounced on us as if it had been locked in a cage for 4½ months. Just witness the nonstop free-agency updates on ESPN and the barrage of “team capsules” in the right-hand corner of the screen. Hours after the lockout ended, did we really have a pressing need to study the Cincinnati Bengals schedule?
A prolonged work stoppage would have been ugly. But missing a month to six weeks of regular-season games, just to cool off, would not have been so bad.
Maybe everyone would have returned to football anyway. But at least everyone would have had a choice. It’s easier, after all, to assess the value of something once it’s gone for a while.
But don’t worry. If, like me, you were intrigued by a few football-free Sundays, you may end up with some more playground time in May and June — when the NBA may be locked out of its own playoffs.