The squeeze is on

You've heard the buzz about the NFL's labor dispute. Now read the truth

Updated: February 11, 2010, 12:16 PM ET
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine
Illustration by Joe Zeff DesignJust how close is the NFL to combusting?

This article appears in the Feb. 22 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

That was fun, wasn't it? There was the September rise and December collapse of the Broncos, and the November collapse and January rise of the Jets. Peyton Manning won his fourth MVP award, Chris Johnson ran for 2,000 yards, Bill Belichick made the mother of all fourth-down calls. We watched Kurt Warner for the last time and Brett Favre for another last time. We loved the Who Deys and Who Dats.

We just hope you cherished every last moment, because the fun won't last. Are you ready for some sloppy football in 2010? And a draft where nobody wants to pick? And a bunch of angry players embroiled in nasty contract disputes? How about a work stoppage in 2011?

As you've no doubt heard, the NFL and the players union are embroiled in a labor dispute. At the heart of the conflict is how to split a revenue pie of about $8.5 billion. The owners want a bigger piece; the players want to keep the slice they've got. If an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement isn't reached by midnight on March 5 -- and nobody, not even commissioner Roger Goodell, is holding out hope -- the league will play the 2010 season under the Final League Year rules, otherwise known as the uncapped year. And that's just the beginning of the madness. Because, as labor disputes go, this one is a reverse of the baseball, basketball and hockey wars we've witnessed over the past 15 years: The union wants to keep the salary cap, while the owners want to scrap it. "Sounds crazy," says former Packers exec Andrew Brandt. "But that's where we're at."

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.