September 19, 2020

Football still rules: Not even coronavirus will change the NFL’s place in the sports hierarchy

Straight up: Pay no heed to anyone trying to peddle a return date on games as we once knew them, because no one really knows. Not even Mark Cuban. Only last week, he’d talked to “experts” who gave him hope the NBA would be back in business by mid-May. This week, the Mavs’ owner says he has no idea, which sounds more like it. Venturing a guess is above pretty much anyone’s pay grade these days. Even a billionaire’s.

Just the same, in the throes of a pandemic that has shut down the NBA, NHL and MLB, if not the world its ownself, NFL owners doubled down this week by voting unanimously to expand playoffs this season and the schedule next year.

Restaurants are closed, theaters silent and Times Square practically a ghost town, but the NFL’s cash registers still ring.

Even if Kirk Herbstreit’s fears prove correct, and, God forbid, there’s no football this fall, it doesn’t change the natural order of things.

NFL owners go about their big business as usual because nothing else has stopped it and, short of a global crisis, nothing will.

Football’s advantage isn’t simply a matter of timing, but it’s a good place to start. League insiders can mourn the loss of OTAs, but football once got along just fine without an organized offseason and can do so again, at least in the short term. Can’t interview potential draftees in person? FaceTime works just fine, thank you. Won’t mistakes be made as a result? Probably. Mistakes are made in the draft every year. Jerry Jones made a decade’s worth in the late ’90s alone. The beauty of the draft is that someone else’s mistake is your gain. Besides, everyone’s in the same boat now. You don’t have to beat last season’s Kansas City Chiefs, just this year’s knock-off.

Of course, that’s only if there’s such a thing as “this year.” Outside of basketball or boxing, no sport risks greater transmission of disease than football. Even if you could test the players, how do you justify it in light of the lack of tests for the general public? And what do you do about fans? Even if the games are on TV, could Jerry really stomach an empty stadium?

The answers to those questions aren’t yet available, but at least the NFL has a few months to consider the possibilities before its season is upended like the rest.

As previously noted, timing isn’t NFL owners’ only advantage. The $6 billion they take annually from TV is more than what the other big three sports make combined. Unlike baseball, hockey and, to a lesser extent, the NBA, the NFL doesn’t pay a dime for its farm system. The salary scale for its workforce isn’t as daunting, either. Only recently have partially-guaranteed contracts been a thing in the NFL. For comparisons, ask the Angels how much longer they’re on the hook for Albert Pujols.

Never mind, I’ll tell you: Albert will make $30 million in 2021 at the age of 41, which will officially include a run of about five years when he’s been, from an analytics standpoint, one of baseball’s worst players.

Think of the $240 million guaranteed Albert got next time you want to bark about the greediness of Dak Prescott. Few pro athletes are short-changed as much as NFL players. Read just about any of their obituaries. Take Willie Wood, who died in February at 83. The Packers’ great Hall of Fame safety walked with a cane at 65 after hip and knee replacements, vertebrae fusion and lower back surgery. He was diagnosed with dementia at 68.

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