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Both the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins raised their right index fingers in the air last Sunday to show solidarity among NFL players for the upcoming labour talks with the owners. ((Rick Stewart/Getty Images))

The National Football League opened the 2010 season on Thursday like many others, with fireworks, live music, and a showdown between two high-profile franchises.

But this year, there was a very sour twist.

With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire in March 2011, the future of the thriving professional sport enterprise rests on shaky ground.

As players took the field this past week, a much larger battle continued to manifest itself in boardrooms, luxury suites and owners' boxes across the league.

But rumblings from the NFL's higher-ups were countered by the players. 

In Buffalo, members of the Bills and the visiting Miami Dolphins joined in a salute, collectively raising their right index fingers before the start of Sunday's opening game as a gesture of solidarity.

And this action was not limited to Western New York.

In other games, at different venues, it was more of the same. The Texans and Indianapolis Colts joined in a similar show of camaraderie before the opening kickoff in Houston. The same could be seen in several stadiums across the US.

That gesture reminded everyone of those three little letters that strike fear into the hearts of sports fans everywhere: CBA.

The owners — led by the outspoken group of Jerry Jones (Cowboys), Jerry Richardson (Panthers), Robert Kraft (Patriots) and Pat Bowlen (Broncos) — feel they received an unfair deal in the 2006 CBA and are pushing for reform and a new system that benefits their interests.

On the other side of ball, the NFLPA is holding the line. Led by executive director DeMaurice Smith, the players are digging in their heels to keep the status quo set in 2006 —  even if the end result is a work stoppage in 2011.

The issue

  • Owners feel players receive too much team revenue and need money to pay for venues.
  • Players feel the owners are trying to take away their livelihood.

Bottom line: Both sides are poised for a game of chicken, with neither willing to swerve — and the resulting head-on collision could wipe out the 2011-12 season.

The changing playing field

  • Owners: In the past, stadiums were partially or completely paid for by taxpayers. In the current era of multibillion-dollar stadiums, owners must shoulder the brunt of the financial costs for these venues. They want players to take pay cuts to help alleviate costs.
  • Players: Contend they don't have stock or ownership of the team, so why should they have to pay for the venues?

Bottom line: The players can't last as long as owners — but the owners can't last forever.

Mutually assured destruction (MAD)

  • NFLPA trump card: Strike carried out by the union results in players losing salary, livelihood, and jobs.
  • Owners trump card: Lockout, where they bleed to death, slowly, by losing revenues from tickets sales, merchandise, parking, etc.

Bottom line: Either strike or lockout would see communities across the U.S. become the biggest losers — emergency workers, game day staff, vendors, team employees and local businesses that rely on the games would be the first casualties.   

A happy ending?

Compromise can be reached if:

  • Owners back off their stance and ask for fewer changes from the previous deal.
  • Players give up some pieces of their lucrative deal.

Bottom line: If nothing is done, everyone — players, owners, communities and fans are all denied what they really want: football.