They congregated outside Qwest Field on the first Sunday of spring, spurred to action by a state of affairs they regarded as untenable. Standing near the entrance of the Seattle Seahawks' Pro Shop, the peeved protesters exercised their First Amendment rights by chanting "We Want Football" and voicing their displeasure over the NFL lockout to anyone who'd listen.
Then the angst-ridden agitators peacefully dispersed and headed off into an offseason of uncertainty – all 12 of them.
When word of the Dirty Dozen's displeasure got back to the owners of the NFL's 32 franchises last Sunday night – the wealthy individuals whose insistence on extracting financial concessions from players compelled them to shut down their sport – I'm sure they were shaking in their silk pajamas. Similarly, the approximately 1,900 players whose representatives gave up on collective bargaining and instead employed a strategy centered on decertification and litigation undoubtedly broke out in hives and went into panic-stricken convulsions.
Wait, that was convulsive laughter? Of course it was. Put it this way: If at the next NFL owner meeting they were to broadcast video of the Seattle fan protest – and others like it in NFL cities such as Pittsburgh and Baltimore – a whole lot of old guys would be getting their Dr. Evil on.
Whether the owners and players are literally laughing at the fans whose devotion they're testing isn't really the point. At the very least, the two factions are taking the paying customers for granted as they steel themselves for a standoff that may or may not be resolved by the start – or finish – of the 2011 season.
Each side has its reasons for going to war, most of them preceded by dollar signs. And certainly, refusing to settle for a collective bargaining agreement they regard as substandard and slugging it out in the courts in an effort to attain leverage is the owners' and the players' prerogative.
Yet even as key figures in each camp pay lip service to the fans' interests, owners and players are basically giving a middle-finger salute to the bakers of their $9.3-billion annual pie. I'm fairly confident that the 12 angry men and women outside Qwest Field aren't causing them to question that decision.
There's a lot of talk about the prospect of the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 alienating fans in a deep and enduring manner, as prolonged disputes in major league baseball and the NHL appeared to do in the 1990s. Yet neither the owners nor the players seem overly stressed by this possibility. Trust me: If either side believed that there'd be a significant drop-off in devotion and financial commitment from the public at large, we'd have a settlement faster than Charlie Sheen transformed the word winning into a pop-culture phenomenon.
In fact, this may be the only thing on which owners and players are in full agreement right now: No matter how messy things get on the labor front, the fans will come flocking back once football resumes. So, yes, fans are being disrespected by the very people whose lives they enhance. And they absolutely have good reason to feel betrayed, frustrated and powerless.
Being a professional sports fan in the United States is risky business. First, franchises suck you in and project a false sense of collective ownership: Ladies and gentlemen, YOUR Pittsburgh Steelers. You buy into it, and then you buy tickets and jerseys and NFL Sunday Ticket accordingly. Except, when things get tough, you find out the team in question isn't yours at all.
Just ask Sacramento Kings fans, who are about to lose the only professional sports team in town to Anaheim, which can offer a newer, sleeker arena to the franchise's actual owners, the Maloofs. Or ask Seattle SuperSonics supporters or Los Angeles Rams loyalists or Montreal Expos enthusiasts how they feel about the teams they once thought were theirs. In the latter case, you might learn some cool new French swear words.
The same disconnect is present during the NFL lockout. The Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers advertise themselves as the only nonprofit, community-owned franchise in major U.S. professional sports – but if you own stock in the team, try calling a vote to end the lockout, and see what kind of power your shareholder's agreement grants you.
Obviously, fans ultimately retain the ability to vote with their wallets. If they get disgruntled enough – and right now, with all due respect to the Dirty Dozen and their sparsely gathered counterparts across the country, I'd say they're only mildly gruntled – they could stage a boycott that would make owners and players sorry they treated their patrons so callously.
It sounds daunting, in theory. And if U.S. District Court judge Susan Nelson declines to grant the players an injunction to stop the lockout next week and the dispute drags into the season, public disapproval will certainly intensify. But a prolonged and sustained abandonment of pro football by a significant slice of the fan base, even after the lockout ends? Sorry, I just can't see it.
For one thing, merely staying away from stadiums on Sunday isn't nearly sufficient. If you're a fan who wants to turn his or her back on the NFL, you need to stop watching the games – all games – on television. That's not so easy, is it? Last season, more of you watched NFL contests than ever before, and that sweet HDTV in your family room is calling out for Al and Cris and Tirico and Gruden and Jaws.
You also must stop buying merchandise. And give up that fantasy-football juggernaut, complete with the weekend boondoggle in Vegas that you and your boys take every summer in the process of staging a beverage-fueled draft. And, for what it's worth, stop clicking on NFL.com.
As a matter of fact, you can start your boycott by ignoring next month's NFL draft and all of the hype leading up to it.
I'm not holding my breath, especially given the way many fans reacted to the mere possibility that the players might consider disrupting (or even not playing along with) the charade likely to play out in a few weeks – the systematic and arguably illegal drafting of players who'll be locked out shortly after shaking NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's hand.
The basic message: How dare they mess with our illusion of normalcy?
Most of you, understandably, want this dispute to be settled and for things to go back to the way they were. Eventually, it will be resolved – and I'm betting the vast majority of fans will swallow their pride and come rushing back to rejoin the party. Even if the lockout wipes out the entire 2011 season, I think the lasting damage will be minimal. If anything, I believe a lost season would make most fans that much more fired up about football's return.
This isn't the NHL, and this isn't major league baseball. This is the league that counterprograms the World Series with mildly interesting regular-season matchups and kicks its butt, and it has no realistic competition in terms of captivating the American consumer.
So pardon my skepticism, as well as my instinctive compulsion to roll my eyes when I hear about things like the Facebook campaign initiated by national sports-bar chain Buffalo Wild Wings urging fans to sign a "Save Our Season" petition.
Some questions: Really, a corporate-led protest? This is what we've come to in the 21st century? I'm pretty sure Cesar Chavez didn't see this coming. And what bold act, exactly, can Buffalo Wild Wings conjure to escalate its brave display of civil disobedience – spiking its hot wings with habanero pepper flakes and delivering them to NFL and NFLPA headquarters?
Yes, I know, Derek Anderson(notes) – it's not funny. I realize that I shouldn't be goofing on the notion of fan dissatisfaction, given the fact that consumers' appetite for all things NFL helps justify my professional existence too.
Yet against my better judgment, and until proven otherwise, I'm laughing at the lot of you, with a volume level that would make Dr. Evil proud. Rest assured, I have lots of company.