Fall Sundays and the NFL -- it's a combination as American as apple pie. But for players, teams and millions of football fans, there may be no kickoffs next September.
The current labor contract between the NFL and the players' union, NFL Players Association (NFLPA), expires on March 4, one month after the Super Bowl. Unless a new agreement is reached, it looks like the league will head straight for a work stoppage.
That means no spring practice, no free agency deals and, potentially, no 2011 season.
"At the end of the day, fans want to know, 'Am I going to see football next year?' and unfortunately we can't guarantee that," said George Atallah, the NFLPA's assistant executive director for external affairs.
Typically, when NFL players come to Washington, it's to celebrate a championship. This week, they came to present their case to members of Congress in an attempt to ensure there still will be a game to play.
The standoff between the league and team owners and the players centers around two key issues:
First, revenue sharing. NFL players currently receive 60 percent of the league's $9 billion dollars in annual revenue, but team owners say that's unsustainable given the economic downturn. They want to reduce the players' share by about 9 to 18 percent.
The second issue is the schedule. The league wants to add two more regular season games, for a total of 18. Players say that increases their risk of injury and they deserve compensation.
Players want Congress to use its leverage over the league -- leverage that they say comes from an anti-trust exemption given to the NFL years ago to negotiate television contracts and share revenues.
So far, members have shown little indication they will intervene, and the players insisted that they were not expecting them to.
"At this point, we're not trying to get anybody to step in to interfere, we just want to inform members of Congress where we stand," said Pete Kendall, a former offensive lineman and now a permanent representative on the union's negotiating committee.
"We're not looking for Congress to step in and do anything per se," said Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday. "We're just looking to get people in our communities to understand what our cause is."
Would Lockout Effect Communities?
In meetings with members including Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and former NFL players like Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., and Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., the players focused on how a lockout and cancelled season would affect their communities.
"This Congress is concerned about jobs, jobs and jobs," Kendall said. "A lockout will affect the local economy, not just those who attend the games but those who provide services at the games."
"We're not talking about penalizing players only -- this is going to hurt your parking lot attendants, your restaurants, your hotels. Everybody in your city hurts when this happens," Saturday told ABC News.
Saturday said that stadium parking attendants thank the players for extra games -- and extra work -- when they make the playoffs.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said this week that the league and team owners want to avoid a lockout
"There's a very clear understanding [that] if there's a work stoppage it hurts everybody. It hurts the clubs, it hurts the players, it hurts the game. And most importantly, it will hurt the fans," Goodell said.
But the NFL insists the changes it's pushing for are necessary for the league's long-term financial health.
"This is about the future of our game," Goodell said. "There are things that need to be addressed and we need to address those responsible, so that everybody can win."
Labor disputes have occurred recently in the other professional sports leagues. The 2004-2005 NHL season was cancelled because of a lockout. The NBA had a six-month work stoppage in 1998. When Major League Baseball players went on strike in August 1994, the rest of the season, the playoffs and the World Series were cancelled.
Players Insist They Want To Work
But unlike that baseball strike, the NFL players insist they want to work -- and it's the owners that will prevent them from doing so.
"The players deadline is March 4," the NFLPA's Atallah said. "That is critical, because to them, to a group of employees that need to go work out at their facilities [and] get physical treatment for their illness, that is the critical date for them.
"Once the contract expires," Atallah added, "effectively players are not allowed to engage with employers, they can't work out, they can't go meet with their coaching staffs."
Goodell sat down with DeMaurice Smith, the players' union chief, in New York on Wednesday and both sides are continuing to express optimism that something will work out before the March 4 deadline. But it may take a last second Hail Mary pass for an agreement to be reached.