I was lucky enough to be present at John Elway’s first comeback game. I remember well the feeling heading into the fourth quarter at old Mile High Stadium. As the sun began to fade and the final seconds ticked off the clock in the third quarter, things seemed pretty bleak for the Broncos. Down 19-0 to the Baltimore Colts, it looked as though my first-ever in-person Broncos game would be a bust.
Then something wonderful happened. In the space of one quarter, Elway led his team to three touchdowns and rallied his team to an improbable 21-19 win. It was magical.
Since that time, every Broncos win has elicited in me the same kind of euphoric feeling I experienced for the first time as a boy of 12, when I was fortunate enough that a friend and his dad chose to use their extra ticket on me.
People love pro football. And that’s exactly what players and owners are counting on as they prolong their acrimonious dispute over how to divide a $9 billion pie. They don’t seem to think fans have a “point of no return”.
But I think they’re wrong.
Unlike prior NFL labor disputes, the current one is paraded before fans in all its ugly detail through a variety of media and online outlets. And yes, it’s ugly. Both sides knew for years that a new collective bargaining agreement would need to be reached, but they waited until — and beyond — the last minute. If that wasn’t bad enough, the players chose litigation as their ultimate strategy.
Now I’m no litigator, but I am a lawyer. And I do know this: Litigation doesn’t lead to “win-win” outcomes. If followed to the bitter end, one side wins, the other loses, and very often the relationship between the litigants is permanently damaged. For the most part, litigation is a last-resort strategy, used when parties have given up any hope of a mutual settlement.
Like millions of Americans, I’m watching this process with some interest because I love the occasional NFL game on a fall Sunday afternoon or Monday night. I’ve willingly, and against my better judgment, suspended my disbelief and allowed the NFL marketers to convince me that their product remains that magical experience of my youth — a mythical retreat from the stresses and strains of life.
Folks watch football to escape. Where else can you get away from the legalistic, partisan, rhetorical conflict that permeates so many aspects of American popular culture today?
But — darn it — here come the lawyers, rhetoric and acrimony. Here come the lawsuits. Here come the legal analysts. Here come the public opinion polls asking which side the fans blame. Here comes the finger-pointing. Here come the angry debates.
The only thing missing is the game, which is all fans really care about.
If they’re not careful, the players and owners will be the agents of their own demystification. And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t be able to put the magic back together again.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”