The Saints and Vikings kicked off the 2010 NFL season last Thursday with a show of unity that caused a collective groan across the sporting nation. Before the opening kickoff, players from both teams stood shoulder to shoulder and raised their index fingers to the sky. The goal: to show that players are "one team, one locker room, one voice" in the looming battle with owners over a new collective bargaining agreement. The gesture, however, went over about as well as a nail in a tire.
Viewers had tuned in for football—a three-hour escape from reminders about tough times—not to have it shoved in their faces that their beloved game, which generated some $9 billion in revenue in '09, could be taken from them next season if owners lock out their players as the union expects. Fans vented on blogs, radio shows and Twitter. On Sunday in Houston, one of seven locations to see the finger-raising repeated, spectators booed. And members of a group called DontMessWithSuccess.com, which describes itself as a "coalition of fans, community leaders, businesses ... [whose] mission is to give a voice to those who count on the game," have taken to distributing STOP THE LOCKOUT fliers at stadiums.
DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the players' association, remains unfazed. He says he knew some would take offense at the gesture, which was conceived by the Saints' player reps. But he also believed it would help educate and engage fans, which, by extension, could put pressure on both sides to finalize a new deal before the current pact expires next March. The solidarity gestures could lead to the public becoming, in essence, a third party in the negotiations.
As one Dolphins fan wrote on Phinphanatic.com, where it was suggested that fans turn their backs the next time players raise their fingers, "Without us, no sport is an entertainment vessel. It's simply nonexistent." Fans may not like what they're seeing, but at least they're talking about it. So in that respect the Saints achieved more than one victory in their opener.