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In a fortuitous development, the sports world has gone out of its way to help conflicted NFL fans cope with the league's current labor strife.

For instance, watching the NFL owners and players do battle is like watching the final 2 minutes of an NBA game. It takes so long and there are so many interruptions that eventually you just give up and mutter, "Wake me when it's over."

It's also akin to watching the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox on — where else? — ESPN. You really don't care who wins because you've grown to despise both teams for being so blatantly greedy despite having an embarrassment of riches.

So it goes as the NFL owners and players try to divvy up $9 billion. Most fans have stopped following the proceedings, which have moved from laughable negotiations to half-hearted mediation to overt media power plays to self-serving courtroom arguments. Currently, the future of the NFL rests in the hands of 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

At this point, all most fans want is football. They don't care who wins or loses or who ends up with the $300 million still in dispute. They only want the season to start on time.

It's easy to see why fans feel that way because figuring out which side to root for in this complicated mess has become increasingly difficult. However, if you must choose between the two and you're a fan of the Green Bay Packers, you probably want to cheer for the owners.

I know, it goes against your grain to root for billionaires over millionaires, especially since most of us are worker bees who tend to side with labor over management. And despite the players' inflated salaries, it's easy to be sympathetic toward them.

After all, it is the players, not the owners, who are the show in the NFL. It is the players, not the owners, who risk physical harm on every play. It is the players, not the owners, who have only a short time to maximize their earning potential.

But purely from a practical standpoint, fans of the Packers and every other franchise from a small or medium-sized market should want the NFL to maintain the status quo, or as close to the status quo as possible. That means rooting for the owners.

Here's why: With one or two exceptions, the owners understand that the NFL's phenomenal success is tied directly to its level playing field. NFL staples such as the draft, salary cap and limited free agency are vital to maintaining that parity. Now that the argument has spilled over into the courts, however, some or all of those rules could be in jeopardy due to antitrust considerations.

Retired Packers president Bob Harlan always said the two most important things for the team's ability to survive were the salary cap and revenue sharing. Indeed, it is those things that give the Packers the same chance of winning the Super Bowl as the mega-market New York Giants.

The same can't be said in other sports. Does anyone really think the Milwaukee Brewers have the same chance of winning the World Series as the Yankees?

Fan interest proves that most of them think the NFL has it right. In the past 20 years, 13 of its 32 teams have won the Super Bowl. Compare that the NBA, where seven of the 30 teams have won titles. And in no sport has there been anything like the current run in the NFC, where 10 different franchises have reached the Super Bowl in 10 years.

What makes it doubly hard to root for the owners is that they caused this situation by opting out of the collective bargaining agreement early. The irony of the owners opting out is that the players thought the former deal was tilted toward the teams. Turned out it was a deal the owners couldn't live with financially. Or so they say, anyway.

Meanwhile, the players say they're not out to challenge the legality of the draft and free agency. Believe that at your peril, too.

Now that the courts are involved, the post-lockout NFL could look quite different than the current one. Even though the Packers are on much firmer financial footing than they were 20 years ago, that probably wouldn't be beneficial for them.

The courts are unpredictable and there are no guarantees that they or the players will see the big picture regarding parity and the league's success. The owners have demonstrated that they understand that concept, which is why Packers fans should pull for them, however grudgingly.

Contact Tom Oates at or 608-252-6172.

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