Former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had a seemingly simple, yet vastly impossible dream during his 29-year run as the leader of America's biggest sport.
Just once, Rozelle hoped, an entire offseason and even a regular season would go by without money being mentioned prominently in association with his sport. Rozelle might have had better luck trying to book Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny together for three nights at the Rainbow Room.
Money is as old to the landscape of the NFL as it is to the fabric of society in general, with Red Grange galloping into New York on a barnstorming tour in the 1920s or George Halas prying Columbia graduate and future Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman away from a sales job in 1939 with a then-record $5,500 annual salary.
Just imagine it, a rookie once walked into the NFL as the highest-paid player in the league.
Nearly 70 years later, it's the same argument about rookies being overpaid. In addition, there's grumblings about stadiums costing too much, players and owners bickering over who gets how much and players threatening to hold out if they don't receive specified financial terms.
"Our fans don't want to hear about money all the time and we know it," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in May, a day after he and the rest of the NFL owners voted unanimously to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement. "They want to hear about the players, all the hard work that they put in … but it's a reality of what we do. Money is part of it, we just have to keep it in perspective."
While Jones said that, he sat in the driver's seat of his black town car in Arlington, Texas, staring at the gleaming edifice some Cowboys fans refer to as "Jerry's World." It's the giant new stadium Jones is building for the Cowboys, which is scheduled to open in 2009.
The expression "giant new stadium" is sort of like referring to Tokyo as kind of crowded. The house that Jones is building for his beloved Cowboys is beyond even the loftiest football palace that any Texan could imagine. It's more like an intersection of the best of a World's Fair, the Golden Gate Bridge, an Italian Piazza and some spaceship from the mind of George Lucas. In its own way, the new Cowboys Stadium is nearly as mind-bending to consider as the Roman Colosseum.
"And it's all just a little more than a $1 billion," Jones said, smiling broadly through his soft-pedaled sarcasm.
Even at that price, the stadium looks like a bargain. It features two girded archways that will each span 1,290 feet. Attached to the arches will be the world's largest high-definition television, more than 60 yards long and hanging 110 feet from the floor of the stadium.
"This is going to be a viewing experience for the fans that come," Jones said. "When people look at that screen, they're going to see something they've never seen before."
Of course, some people believe the investment Jones and other franchises have made in new stadiums will force the owners to come to an agreement with the players and avoid labor unrest. In short, if the owners are leveraged to the hilt to pay off expensive stadiums, they need the sport healthy and playing.
Jones countered that by saying, "There's nothing we've done that puts us in a position where we're going to have to play. You don't do that."
Until then, Jones and the other owners will find ways to maximize their profits. One way has been selling PSLs for the new stadiums. The Cowboys will charge $16,000-$150,000 for PSLs in the lower bowl of the new stadium, according to Sports Business Daily. The New York Giants will charge $1,000-$20,000 for their $1.6 billion stadium that they'll share with the New York Jets that is set to open in 2010. The Jets' prices will range from $4,000-$25,000.
However, the discussion of money this offseason hasn't been limited to new stadiums and PSLs. First, there were the usual moves in free agency, with the likes of cornerback Asante Samuel leaving New England after helping the Patriots win two titles for greener pastures in Philadelphia for a reported six-year, $57-million contract. On the flipside, former Most Valuable Player Shaun Alexander was kicked out of the Emerald City of Seattle because he was no longer worth the cash.
"That's such a tough call with a player like Shaun because he's huge part of what you try to build, but there comes a time you have to move on," Seattle coach Mike Holmgren said.
Then there were the contracts for No. 1 overall pick Jake Long, a pre-draft deal in April that made him the highest paid offensive lineman (reported five years, $57.5 million with the Miami Dolphins) in the league before he ever took a snap, and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, the No. 3 overall pick who received $34.5 million guaranteed. Altogether, the top six players in the draft all surpassed $20 million in guarantees.
Throughout the offseason, there were threats or whispers of several veterans missing minicamps and OTAs as they sought restructured contracts. Veteran Steven Jackson ended a 27-day holdout with the St. Louis Rams on Aug. 20 and signed a reported six-year, $44-million deal the next day. Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Derrick Harvey signed a five-year, $23.8 million contract last Wednesday, ending a 33-day holdout.
But the biggest move of the offseason was the decision by owners to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement. That move is a prelude to what could be significant labor strife over the next three years. One team executive said in early August that he fully expects that the owners will go to an uncapped year in 2010 as they move out of the current system and hope to find a more workable resolution.
Finding such a resolution might be difficult, particularly after the tough talk of attorney Jeff Kessler, who works on the CBA negotiations for the league. When owners opted out of the agreement, Kessler's response was that the union would "ask for more," a clear shot across the bow at management.
However the negotiations over the CBA and the salary cap go, the news figures to be a dreary reminder of what Rozelle hated most.
"When you start talking about money, the only thing you hear as a player is that we're so lucky to be making what we're making," Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday said. "Both sides are doing very well and if we can't work out a solution, the fans aren't going to be happy with us. We all know that."
When it comes to money issues in the NFL, you can't forget it.