There will be an NFL season in 2011.
That's what Commissioner Roger Goodell keeps saying. So do many of the owners and lots of players, even though labour talks collapsed, the union dissolved itself, and star players including MVP Tom Brady asked for a preliminary injunction to prevent a lockout hours before the league even implemented one.
Despite the nasty rhetoric of last week, no one would paint the doomsday scenario of no football come September. Instead, we hear Chargers president Dean Spanos say, "We will get through this. There will be a new agreement and we're looking forward to playing football this season."
And we hear Bears president Ted Phillips echo with "A deal will get done and we expect to play football in 2011."
Are they right? And how will they get there?
"There will be no negotiating for a while," said Gary Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis. "Both sides will wait to see how the legal manoeuvring plays out.
"Where we are after all the mediated negotiations is the players reached a point where they figure they can get a better deal if they file an antitrust lawsuit than continue to bargain at the table. The league would have preferred to be in collective bargaining and lock the players out because they feel it's the best way to maximize their leverage.
"Ultimately, come August and September, they feel they will have more leverage to get a better deal."
August? September? Not very encouraging.
"This is classic collective bargaining, with each side using their tactical devices to increase bargaining leverage. At the end of this, before the season is lost, they will hammer out an agreement."
Owners, player take time to think
For now, the players will meet in Marco Island, Fla., beginning Wednesday, an annual convention that has taken place in Maui most years —that's where DeMaurice Smith was elected successor to the late Gene Upshaw as executive director in 2009. Smith was charged with keeping the status quo as much as possible because the players liked the deal Upshaw and then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue struck in 2006.
They will plot strategy for the next few months, hopeful the request for a preliminary injunction filed Friday by Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and seven other players, including Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller, will stop the lockout. The players also filed an antitrust suit against the league.
Should the injunction be granted, the NFL would be forced to operate while a new CBA is discussed, although the rules under which the league would be doing business are uncertain. When the players' strike failed in 1987 and the union decertified in 1989, the situation was similar. And the players' success in the courts eventually led to a new labour pact in 1993 that included free agency.
Decertification means players no longer are protected under labour law but instead are now allowed to take their chances in federal court under antitrust law.
Most importantly from the end of the strike —and the end of the replacement games the NFL staged while the union was on picket lines —until the new agreement was reached, no games were missed.
"As a veteran and lifetime fan of professional football, I have experienced the business with uncertainty firsthand," said Seattle running back/kick returner Leon Washington, who agreed to a new four-year contract two weeks ago. "I feel for the coaches, and facility and stadium employees as their lives could be affected... With all this being said, I'm optimistic that there will be football played in 2011."
The owners begin their usual planning for the next season with their annual meetings in New Orleans starting next Sunday. Not that anything is normal about this off-season.
Still, they will hear from the competition committee, which has been meeting on potential rules changes, and will get reports from a variety of other committees. That includes the labour committee that failed to reach agreement with the players.
And the owners also will plot strategy, knowing very well that corporate and broadcast partners and sponsors already are making plans for their late summer and fall spending.
For the next few weeks, fans can get their fill with the NFL draft, a cottage industry unto itself. While fans focus on pro days and workouts for college players headed into the April 28-30 draft, the business side of the game will hunker down in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, where Brady and his peers brought their lawsuit.
After that, barring court decisions that force some movement, it will be time to get nervous, if not panicky.
"We definitely will not see a deal reached before seeing some of these rulings from the courts," Roberts said. "Neither sides know what their risks are until the court rules.
"As for when the parties begin to feel the heat sufficiently to do a deal, we can't predict. Again, my guess is won't see a deal done before August or September."