Ready for some football

The fight between billionaires and millionaires may be close to ending. That is how many Americans, including President Obama, viewed the labor dispute between the owners and players in the National Football League. There were other, legitimate debates between the two sides about safety and the care of retired players, but on the whole, the dispute was about money, lots of it, and that wasn't something that endeared either side to an American people muddling through the lingering aftermath of the Great Recession. The particulars of the deal, to the average person, are far less important than the deal getting done. Unemployment is high, wars are dragging on, Congress can't seem to get anything accomplished, and it's god-awful hot. On top of this, a lost season of football is something we do not need.

The two sides finished the framework of their agreement this week, and NFL owners meeting in Atlanta approved the pact Thursday. Now it up to the players, including those who have filed anti-trust lawsuits against the league, to sign off. There remains uncertainty and unhappiness among the players about some last minute changes, but ultimately, ratification in some form seems likely. Soon there will be a plethora of free agent signings, and training camp could start next week. Eventually there will be pro football.

It took four months of a lockout and conflicting court rulings for the two sides to come to general agreement on how to carve up the $9.3 billion in annual revenue that the league generates. Players would take a cut in their percentage of all revenue, down from 50 percent to between 46 and 48 percent, but the owners will be under additional pressure to spend their cut of the revenue on player salaries. First-round draft picks would sign four-year deals with a club option for the fifth year. Since the average length of time a player lasts in the NFL is three and a half years, for many players, their initial contract will be their only one. The owners wanted to add two more games to the season. The players balked, saying more games translated into an increased chance of serious head injuries. The two extra games went away, and more of the regular season schedule was pushed to Thursday night, generating more television revenue.

A positive and unexpected element of the proposed agreement calls for fewer full-contact practices. This is a smart move, since an increasing amount of research shows that practices are responsible for head trauma, which could lead to concussions. For this reason, football teams in the Ivy League are limiting their full contact practices this season to two a week.

The agreement to cap team payrolls at $120 million is supposed to strengthen equity among the teams. Unlike Major League Baseball, where teams with deep pockets can spend virtually unlimited funds corralling the best players, the NFL does a relatively good job of giving every team in the league a shot at success.

A welcome addition to the prior agreement is an improvement in the pension and disability benefits of retired players. That's something particularly on the minds of Baltimoreans in the wake of former Colt tight end John Mackey's death this month; he had suffered from frontal temporal lobe dementia as a result of the punishment he took on the field, and he was largely responsible for what benefits former players had before. An improvement in those benefits is a fitting tribute to his memory.

The owners, fearing massive liability, had previously turned away from issue, and the players association had regarded its mission as looking out for welfare only of current players. Meanwhile researchers are gathering increasing evidence of the severe toll that professional football takes on the bodies and brains of the men who played the game. Just this week, a report out of Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago suggested that retired football players, along with soldiers in combat, may face higher risk of mild cognitive impairment, a potential precursor of Alzheimer's disease. The reported extra $1 billion earmarked for the medical needs of retired players is a good step.

While the bulk of the money from this agreement would end up going to the owners and current players, there is a significant ripple effect professional football has on the economy. Comptroller Peter Franchot estimated that a season without professional football would cost Maryland's state and local governments between $33 million and $37 million in lost sales, income and amusement taxes. That is a big hit — just ask the restaurant owners and merchants in Westminster what a summer without a Ravens training camp has meant for them.

Perhaps in a perfect world we would not care as deeply as we do about professional football. But the Ravens represent Baltimore, and their ups and their downs affect the local mood. Life is hard enough these days without giving up 16 Sunday afternoons (and, every fan hopes, more) at the stadium or neighborhood bar or living room couch.

So yes, the lockout was an unseemly fight between the rich and the very rich, but now that appears on the verge of ending, there is joy in the club basements of Baltimore.

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