Commentary

Players need to protect the game

Updated: October 4, 2012, 6:16 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

So, when does taking a knee become the right thing to do?

When do locked-out NHL players, faced with the immoveable force that is the NHL's ownership group, take one not just for the team, but for the future of the game?

When does the players' union realize that having the will to go toe-to-toe with the owners and keep NHL arenas dark for an entire season, or two, doesn't necessarily mean that is the path that should be followed?

Are we not at that point now?

The NHL announced on Thursday the cancelation of the first slate of regular-season games. After almost three weeks of the current lockout, the two sides remain isolated on the core issue of how to divvy up $3.3 billion in revenues.

As embarrassing as it is for a league that strives to be considered one of the big boys in North American sport, but consistently reveals itself as pathetically small and narrow-minded, the NHL's owners seem absolutely comfortable canceling a second season in eight years to get what they want, which is significant and immediate financial concessions from its players.

You can characterize such a strategy however you like: greedy, arrogant, short-sighted, reckless. All apply. All are true. It doesn't change the reality one iota.

And so, against the backdrop of another season slipping into the void, the time has come for the players to ask themselves not just what's in it for them, but how they want to be remembered.

No one could blame them for wanting to hold firm behind executive director Donald Fehr and to go the distance.

There has been little from the owners' side beyond "give," starting with an embarrassing first proposal that would have seen the players drop their share of revenue from 57 percent to 43 percent, then moving away from that to 47 percent and calling it a compromise.

Any of the league's owners who would actually prefer to play hockey, would prefer a true compromise with players, have been muzzled and numbly follow owners such as Jeremy Jacobs of the Boston Bruins toward the abyss.

But in the end, what will the players have achieved by choosing a strategy that would see them go over the edge in lockstep with the owners other than being able to say, "See, we didn't blink this time?"

The millions of dollars in lost salaries will never be recouped. Never.

Players' careers will end in silence. Fans will turn away in disgust. Sponsors will -- or should -- likewise turn away, and, in the end, players will simply be part of a colossal disgrace.

Has it occurred to Fehr et al that this might be exactly what the owners expected and planned for all along?

Certainly players will tell you they believe this is following a very defined script from the owners' side.

While the players ultimately fractured eight years ago after an entire season was lost, this current crop of players appear to be much more educated, much more unified. Part of that is Fehr's presence and strategy, but the players' resolve seems to grow in direct proportion to their anger at Bettman, in particular, and the owners in general.

Donald Fehr
AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris YoungThe current crop of players appear to be much more educated, much more unified than that of eight years ago.

How often during a season do we discuss one team's ability to get under another team's skin? Why are players like Steve Ott so important to disrupting an opposing team's game plan?

Is it possible this is exactly what Bettman et al are counting on, the players digging in for a battle they cannot win, a war of attrition the owners are eminently more capable of winning?

So why do it? Why follow this path?

We're not suggesting reaching out with a significant compromise offer is an easy course of action for the players to consider.

They feel they paid too high a price with a 24 percent salary rollback and the salary cap they said they'd never accept seven years ago.

This time would be different, they vowed.

But different how, and to what end?

They are in exactly the same place they were eight years ago, facing a season that is a snowball-rolling downhill out of control, out of sight.

It's easy to forget with all the rhetoric back and forth, but the players are essentially fighting to preserve the system they so long ago railed against, or at least protect as much of it as possible.

It's clear to virtually everyone that the 57 percent of revenues the players bargained into the last CBA turned out to be too much given how the game has grown. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly has acknowledged the owners gave too much last time.

The reality is the owners do shoulder the bulk of the costs when growing the game and, as a result, the owners should have more of the league's revenues.

Whether the final tally is a 50-50 split or within a point or two either way, most observers believe the final deal will be in that neighborhood no matter how many games are forfeited and how much good will goes by the boards.

Do the players in their heart of hearts believe any different?

If so, then why not settle now and see the games played?

Would it be unpalatable to take that first, irrevocable step toward the middle knowing it would feel too much like capitulation?

Of course.

Would the players' lifestyles be dramatically altered by making such a deal?

Not one iota, especially if the game continues to grow at the rate players believe it will.

Do this, though, and the players would have the satisfaction of knowing they had done what the owners would not or could not do: protect the game, their game.

Where is the shame in that?