Sports Sermon: NFL unlocked

September 8, 2011

It’s that time of year again, and it couldn’t have come a moment too soon. After the long months of the NFL lockout, when sports fans had little to entertain themselves with outside of tedious midseason baseball and snippets of news about ongoing NFL player-owner negotiations, football is finally back. With the official start of the NFL season slated for tonight, matching up the past two Super Bowl Champions, the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints, America is primed for a return to some semblance of sporting normalcy. Forget about nauseating questions of revenue sharing and salary scales—it’s finally time to ask yourself every offseason’s most important question: “Are you ready for some football?”

Barely a few months ago, the very existence of professional football was up in the air, all because of a dispute that seems just as childish in retrospect as it did then. Owners squabbled over how to turn their billions of revenue into more billions, while the players’ fight for even more financial and medical security often sounded like they took their six-to-seven figure contracts for granted.

Though most fans seemed to side with the players, few could truly care about the outcome of a potential deal. Many fans had to simply turn away as their favorite pastime fizzled away in the high reaches of a Manhattan skyscraper conference room, hoping to one day wake up and learn that the season would start on schedule. Now that an agreement has finally been reached, the details of the dispute seem already forgotten: we just want football.

Nevertheless, while fans try to forget about the lockout, it is impossible to avoid noticing the profound impact the late resolution of the conflict has had on the build-up to the regular season. Teams were given just a few weeks to sign players, negotiate with holdouts, and release players, leading to dozens of Pro-Bowlers and respected veterans playing musical chairs with their squads. Every team was essentially forced to make all the personnel moves of an entire offseason just before the start of the preseason, as contenders swooped in for missing pieces while other teams sought to rebuild their teams from the ashes of last season. Such a condensed period of high-profile roster changes offered an armada of talking points and storylines to ESPN’s talking heads to the casual fan, enabling the NFL to make a immediate return to preeminence in America’s sporting culture.

Most importantly, while the lockout had threatened to shorten the regular season, the settlement was reached in time for just one preseason game to be cancelled. But the prospect of a lost season made us cling to offseason news more than ever. Nothing is different about this season besides a few minor rule changes and shorter training camps, but after the near-death experience of the summer, something about the beginning of this fall seems more meaningful.

So this weekend, whether you’re watching Michael Vick and the Eagles begin their quest for a ring as this season’s hot favorites or checking out the gripping divisional rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, take a moment to reflect on the charade that this lockout has been. The new labor agreement and rule changes will impact the game on and off the field, but few things else constitute any sort of noticeable shift from previous years. Instead, the buzz leading up the season has been more consuming than ever, which can only mean good things in the short term for the NFL and its fans. When the new collective bargaining agreement expires in 10 years and we are faced with yet another lockout, let’s hope not only that the season can be saved, but that it begins with as much anticipation and enthusiasm as this one.

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