Commentary

Played for fools

Hey, fans. Take a stand.

Originally Published: October 17, 2012
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

Rogers ArenaAP Photo/Canadian PressThe recent announcement that the NHL cancelled the first 82 games of the season felt like old news.

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THE FINAL VESTIGE of baseball's old history occurred in 1995, when the league used replacement players in spring training during the game's last strike. This was before the sport went corporate -- before it introduced interleague play, before Bud Selig forced snarling owners to get along by outliving the rotten apples and handpicking the new ones to his exact, accommodating specifications.

The results of the strike were disastrous for MLB; before being appointed to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor presided over the case and sharply rebuked the owners. The judgment from fans was just as harsh. Steroids may have ruined baseball's record books and integrity since then, but at least the game has adhered to its silent vow of never again losing the public over labor issues. The seats were too empty, the call -- assuaged by Cal Ripken Jr.'s signing autographs for hours after games -- was too close. The fans had spoken, and the game listened.

This should have been an empowering tipping point for fans; a sports league pulling back from the brink represented hope that the games actually valued the customer. Yet in the years since, fans have failed to exercise their power, tilting the balance today toward the deepest cynicism yet. Evidenced by six NBA lockouts (four of players, two of referees), two NFL lockouts (one of players, the other of referees) and three NHL lockouts (one that wiped out an entire season) over the past 17 years, owners are more emboldened than ever to shut down their sports. The recent news that the NHL had canceled the first 82 games of the season? It rolled innocuously across the TV screen. Nobody cares.

Fans aren't the only external party to blame for this, of course. While NFL players and management were on their most recent collision course, the networks agreed to TV contracts that would have paid the league even in the event of a lockout. That would have allowed the NFL to create a war chest, giving it little incentive to negotiate. (A judge ultimately denied the NFL access to those funds, a major victory for the players union.)

Still, recent history shows that our fanaticism for sports actually makes lockouts more likely and lengthier than ever. After the NHL shut down in 2004-05, its revenues soared. The NBA played a shortened season in 2011-12 only to return to higher ratings. Most audaciously, the NFL both locked out its players and insulted the fans with replacement officials in the span of 19 months yet didn't suffer any repercussion outside of faux outrage. David Stern, Gary Bettman and Roger Goodell have all the evidence they need that fans won't make them pay, encouraging them to make the players pay, even if it comes at the cost of lost games. (The owners' notion of social responsibility -- that you simply don't screw a loyal customer base -- disappeared the minute the NHL canceled an entire season and lived to tell about it.)

It doesn't have to be this way. The fan, after all, is a key partner of the leagues, like the players and umpires associations and networks. Fans can elect not to watch TV broadcasts, not to pay $200 to DirecTV for the NFL Sunday Ticket, not to buy PSLs or that oh-so-valuable Aaron Rodgers size-52 authentic jersey. Instead of being treated like children expecting the commissioners and owners of the world to do right by them (the players receive something of a pass because there hasn't been a strike in nearly 20 years), fans could produce a revolution of their own by holding on to their money and paying attention to something else.

Instead, fans suffer from resignation and selfishness -- resignation that they have no power, and selfishness that they should neither be blamed for their role in the sports machine nor be deprived of enjoying a Brady-to-Welker touchdown hookup. And so they have made this deal with owners: Sort out your business and we'll be at the gate waiting.

It's a deal as disillusioning as Goodell's thinking he could get away with referees who can't keep track of timeouts. Because it's not clear what could make fans wake up -- what could make them realize their voice is one of the main forces standing between peace and lockouts.

But if resignation and selfishness is the new paradigm, then perhaps fans and the owners deserve each another.

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