We are now hours away from the doomsday scenario football fans have been dreading for more than a year: a full-fledged NFL labor war. And if the current collective bargaining agreement expires at 11:59 Eastern time Thursday night without an extension, likely preceded by the NFL Players Association's move to decertify as a tactical effort to block an owner-initiated lockout, the projected outcome will be a confusing, spite-filled standoff that triggers the league's first work stoppage in 24 years.
Unlike the player strikes of 1982 and 1987, this would be a job action initiated by ownership. And whether it is technically a lockout or a cessation of business (as decertification would suggest that there is no union to lock out) until a new CBA is forged, fans would be in for an uncharted offseason that'd be anything but business as usual.
You know the basics: There would be no free agency, trades or player movement of any kind. Minicamps, OTAs and all contact between coaches and players would be non-existent. There would still be an NFL draft in late April, but rookies wouldn't be able to sign with their new teams – or even report to team facilities – until a settlement is reached.
There are also some ancillary developments that are likely to occur amid the madness, many of which will cause discomfort among owners, players and fans alike. Here are some of the things you can expect if the doors close and life during NFL wartime commences:
• A lot of reruns on NFL Network: Feel like revisiting that December 2008 showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ravens in Baltimore? I certainly hope so, because the league-owned network is staring at some serious programming holes. If the owners don't mandate that current players won't be allowed to appear on NFLN's airwaves during a work stoppage, you can bet the union will do everything in its power to prevent those interviews from happening. Granted, NFLN has a deep roster of engaging personalities and strong reporters, but let's just say things could get a little stale. It's even possible that the union will attempt to discourage players from appearing on the league's broadcast partners (CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN/ABC) as part of its objection to the "lockout insurance" contract extensions recently struck down by U.S. District Judge David Doty. Realistically, that probably won't happen – the NFLPA will crave the opportunity to project its message to the masses – but if the union feels as though coverage is heavily biased against it, a boycott is possible.
• Thirty-three reasons to spend more time on Y! Sports' NFL page: Like the NFL Network, NFL.com won't be featuring any fresh content from current players – and a recent league mandate suggested that the individual team websites will be told not to interview them, either. In a word: Zzzzzzzzzzzz. Fortunately, my colleagues and I at the Y! will have everything you need to stay up on the league.
• A portal into Drew Brees'(notes) living room: While players will be invisible on league-administered media, they'll be encouraged to provide access to independent reporters – and, by extension, to fans – at every turn. What better way to win the hearts and minds of the public than to flaunt the union's star power? Over the past two years, the NFLPA has exhibited savvy when it comes to social media and other 21st century technology that far surpasses that of the league. Look for the union's message to be proliferated through Twitter, Facebook and streaming video, as well as the more traditional channels.
Williams' NFL career was interrupted on multiple occasions because of drug use.
(Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)
• Reefer madness: If the CBA goes away, so does the NFL's drug program, meaning even multiple offenders can look forward to living like Jeff Spicoli without any fear of punishment from commissioner Roger Goodell. As one prominent agent put it recently, "The Ricky Williams(notes) Express, departing for Jamaica, leaves the station a minute after midnight Friday. All aboard!" Given that any settlement would likely include a grace period (say, 28 days) before drug testing is reinstituted, players would be empowered to party with abandon. The same applies to those who use performance-enhancing drugs.
• Unlimited sexting: As with drug use, Goodell's authority to enforce the league's personal-conduct policy would disappear. That means that if a certain legendary quarterback chose to send pictures of his privates to a team employee, the NFL (like the rest of us) would be forced to grin and bear it. On a more serious note, players who commit violent crimes would also be in position to escape league punishment. Look for a lot of pleas to be copped during a work stoppage, with language in the new deal preventing the commissioner from retroactively suspending and/or fining the parties in question.
• Shilling for dollars: Imagine St. Louis Rams halfback Steven Jackson doing a commercial pimping a casino in his native Las Vegas. Picture New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie(notes) pitching Trojans. Wrap your head around Grey Goose commercials featuring some of your favorite NFL stars, or even medical marijuana ads. All of it would suddenly be kosher, and with players looking to offset the pain of the paychecks they might soon be missing, there'd be very little reason for anyone to say no to anything. Incidentally, plenty of NFL coaches are getting their wages cut, too, so look for some of those affected to line up speaking engagements, instructional videos and other revenue-generating opportunities.
• Picket lines at Radio City Music Hall: The league reportedly has already invited at least one prominent prospect to attend the draft in person, but if the work stoppage spills into late April, every college football player's dream could devolve into a nightmare. Would guys like Blaine Gabbert, Cam Newton and Mark Ingram cross a picket line to attend the draft and receive their handshake from Goodell if it meant walking past an angry group of future peers? What would be more intimidating – an angry glare from Ray Lewis(notes) or the cold shoulder from Peyton Manning(notes)? Or both? "The first image of that guy as a professional is crossing a picket line of NFL stars? Forget it," the agent said. "There's no way I'd let my clients do that." On a positive note, it would make for some very interesting footage for the viewing public. Just don't wait for any picket-line exclusives from the NFL Network crew.