The Elephant in the Draft Room


Uncertainty is a common phenomenon in the mind of a football fan. Often, it is more what we don’t know, what we can’t know, that drives us and keeps us on the edge of the bleachers than what we know for certain. Sure, stats are nice. There’s enough media attention paid to wins and losses, trades and firings, but nothing is more exciting and involving for a fan than contemplating what will happen next. Will it be run or pass? Catch or incompletion? Lindley or Patterson? Right guard or right corner?

At this time of year, when the schedules are posted and the mock drafts are scattered about the ether like debris in a hurricane, teams slowly, methodically step away from the uncertainty of January into the clear(er) light of May. All the questions that arose from that final loss – or win, in the Pack’s case – are one by one answered. Coaches are hired, draft picks are signed, free agents find new homes.

But this year is different. Though the schedules came out on time, and Goodell will still put the Panthers on the clock just under a week from today, there is a weirder, more sinister undercurrent of uncertainty running just beneath the surface of it all. The labor dispute. As of right now, we have no guarantee there will even be a season this year. Dozens of free agents are unsure of where they stand with their teams, or if they will even be free agents by the time the gates reopen.

The vast majority of football analysts and TV commentators, however, seem quietly confident that an indefinite work stoppage is not on the horizon. Yes, they say, the labor dispute is disrupting normal operations, altering teams’ draft strategies, complicating the implementation of rule changes and delaying personnel decisions. But very rarely does the possibility of a football-less 2011 even enter the conversation. Throughout the past few weeks, however, I’ve been able to talk to a number of trustworthy, credible “inside sources,” along with a few dozen diehard fans, all of whom seem to view the situation just a little bit differently. In short, they’re worried.

DeMaurice Smith, head of the now-defunct NFL players’ union and, more importantly, a formal trial lawyer, seems more and more determined lately to win his case in court, as opposed to the mediation room, and a number of NFL reporters have already described how the ongoing court-mandated negotiations between players and owners are deteriorating into a stalemate. Both sides, according to CBS Sports’ Mike Freeman, are simply biding their time until a decision can be reached in the players’ anti-trust suit against the owners, and no half-intelligent fan should expect any meaningful progress to be made before then.

But that’s just the beginning. Even when a verdict is finally handed down – either for or against the players – it will take the losing side about 27 seconds to file an appeal in higher court, which will end up dragging the stalemate on for another month, or two, or possibly longer. Given the current state of things, and the massive storm clouds brewing up on the horizon, it’s not unreasonable to think we could be flipping on Sportscenter sometime in mid-July to find Adam Schefter just holding up his hands and shaking his head, mumbling something about “no refunds.”

The truth – the one no serious media professional has the balls to admit  – is that there are simply too many variables at work in this case – from trial verdicts to precedents to the windswept tides of public opinion – to predict with any real accuracy how this will all shake out. So what football fans are really left with, in the end, is more uncertainty. The wrong kind of uncertainty. The cold, unsettling questions that everyone – from season ticket holders to veteran sports journalists – are doing their best to ignore right now. Should I leave my tailgating gear in storage this year? Should I start following Arena Football? Should I protest a sport when both the players and owners seem more concerned with divvying up my money than they do with keeping the game alive?

These questions, for now, will remain rhetorical. But eventually, whether it’s in May, June, or a long, lifeless September, the answers will arrive. Whether we like it or not.