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American idols to call time-out

The run-in to the Super Bowl began in earnest last weekend with some terrific playoff games, most notably the defeat of reigning champions New Orleans Saints by a Seattle Seahawks side regarded beforehand as the worst team ever to make the knockout stages.

But aficionados of American Football better get the most out of the next few weeks because the chances are there mightn't be anything to watch next season.

A stand-off between NFL team owners and the NFL Players' Association shows little sign of being resolved before the league's current collective bargaining agreement ends on March 3. It now seems probable that the owners will lock out the players and shut down the league.

Among the bones of contention are a proposal by the owners to extend the season from 16 to 18 games and to limit the wages paid to rookie players.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell claims that the previous agreement, signed in 2006, "raised players' pay more than was healthy for the league and left owners with insufficient cash to invest in their product . . . player costs outpaced revenue growth and owners cash flow declined by $200 million."

All the same, a recent Forbes magazine list of the world's 50 most valuable sports franchises included all 32 NFL teams and NFLPA president DeMaurice Smith has pointed out that "every team averages $31 million in profit every year.

"Every team is worth $1 billion. And here's the kicker, over the last 15 years every team's value has grown by about 500 per cent."

Jeff McGregor of ESPN.com comments that "the owners, already wealthy beyond imagining and at your expense, simply want to keep more of their record profits."

One of America's best sportswriters, Dave Zirin, sees the dispute as having a symbolic value. "It's also about the future of this country. We are living in a time of severe economic crisis. Whether the bosses or the workers are made to pay for this crisis will be decided in battles large and small taking place around the country.

"But for all of these conflicts, there will be no greater stage or more amplified battleground than that between NFL owners and players. The vast majority of fans have a side in this fight and it's not with Roger Goodell."

There have been NFL lockouts before, in 1982 and 1987, but they were resolved in time for a truncated season to be played. This time around football fans might be seeing something more akin to the 2004/2005 dispute which resulted in the cancellation of an entire National Hockey League season, given that the owners have hired lawyer Robert Batterman who acted for the NHL against the players on that occasion.

To make matters worse for fans of American sport, there is also a lockout looming in the National Basketball Association where owners are trying to impose a 38 per cent pay cut on the players.

What's remarkable is that for all the talk of highly paid sportsmen being prima donnas, nobody expects any players to turn scab and play for the owners.

It hasn't happened during previous disputes and it won't happen should the worst come to the worst this time.

That's what you call solidarity. And it's why we should all hope that the stars of the NFL and the NBA win this battle. After all, nobody ever paid money to watch an owner.

Sunday Indo Sport