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American Football: Strike looms in dispute over NFL's £9bn spoils

Gridiron is booming, but a row between players and owners threatens the unthinkable

A mighty battle threatens the fabric of US life. No, it's not the Obama health care plan. It's not about the right to carry guns – and it is certainly not the thus-far tepid contest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. This dispute is different. It involves the country's most popular sport, booming as never before. But for how much longer? As a modern reincarnation of Rupert Brooke might put it: "Stands America's clock at ten to three, and will there still be football on TV?"

At first glance, the very notion makes no sense. The National Football League (NFL) – that brilliantly marketed athletic equivalent of war, featuring helmeted 20-stone warriors, juddering collisions and tactics of mindboggling complexity – is the richest sports league on earth, with revenues of more than $9bn a year.

Its owners are billionaires, its players millionaires. Its 32 teams are worth an average $1bn apiece and every one of them is profitable. Last month's Super Bowl, the NFL's marquee event and as important a date on the American calendar as Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, was the most watched single programme on television here ever.

But now the NFL is paralysed by a dispute that could cost part or all of the 2011 season, due to start in six months' time. Months of fruitless negotiations over a new labour agreement between the owners and the players' union broke down last weekend, with DeMaurice Smith, the latter's director, describing the situation as "war". But how did events come to such a pass? The answer, as usual, is money: how to divvy up that $9bn. Basically the owners want more of it, while the players are determined to hang on to what they've got.

The old deal, which the owners detested from the moment it was signed in 2006, gave them $1bn to cover such costs as new stadiums and promotion of the sport. The rest was split roughly 60/40 in favour of the players. This time the owners' goal was to secure a further $1bn, either off the top or in a recalibrated share-out of remaining revenues. The players said no. In the final stages of the negotiations, helped along by a federal government mediator, the gap was narrowed, but not enough.

The players rejected an owner's offer that would have increased the overall revenue pot by expanding the regular season from the current 16 games to 18. No way, the union replied, citing the even greater risk of permanent injury that would ensue in one of the most violent sports there is. By the end, the owners' demand for an extra $1bn annually had shrunk to around $400m, according to union negotiators. But no deal could be struck.

The owners announced a lock-out, and the players responded by de-certifying, or legally disbanding, their union – a step that allowed them to launch an anti-trust suit accusing the owners of uncompetitive practices, in other words of operating a cartel (which they do, although Congress hitherto has exempted major sports leagues from the law.)

In fact, the showdown had become inevitable. For months, the lockout train had been trundling down the track, belching dark smoke and hooting ever louder. Indeed, the owners had even fore-armed themselves with a new $4bn TV deal, stipulating that the money would be paid for the 2011 season even if no games were played. But could it really come to that? Logic would suggest not. Forget the glamorous quarterbacks with their $15m-plus salaries and endorsements who can afford a year off. The median wage of an NFL player is around $800,000 for a career that lasts just three and a half years on average. For journeymen pros, to lose an entire season would be a huge sacrifice.

Ditto the owners. Aesop first wrote about geese and golden eggs 2,500 years ago. "I just spent a billion dollars on a stadium, and I didn't plan on not playing football in it," said Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, a franchise worth $1.65bn and ranking second only to Manchester United in Forbes magazine's annual list of the world's most valuable sports teams.

Less tangible, but potentially even more costly, might be the damage to the wholesome and super-patriotic image that the NFL is at such pains to promote. Its brand would surely take a nose-dive if a squabble between millionaires and billionaires were seen to deprive the country of its favourite entertainment, as ordinary citizens struggle to hang on to their jobs and pay their bills.

But stranger things have happened, and labour disputes are as part-and-parcel of major league sport in the US as home runs, slam-dunks and Hail Mary touchdown throws.

Baseball lost half the 1994 season, including its flagship event the World Series, to a players' strike. Basketball's NBA was hit by a lock-out in 1998 and could face an NFL-like showdown of its own ahead of next season. Hockey missed the entire 2004/2005 season thanks to an owner's lock-out, while football lost parts of the 1982 and 1987 seasons to disputes – the second resulting in a crushing victory for the owners that all but destroyed the players' union, as one star player after another crossed the picket line.

Some fear the same may happen again, that old fissures will reopen in union ranks. But it seems less likely. This time the anti-trust suit has been filed by a group including some of the League's most celebrated and richly rewarded performers, among them Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, star quarterbacks all. The owners meanwhile have promised not to take on replacement players as they did in 1987.

Even so, the courtroom struggle may be scarcely less bruising than the standard on-field action. Football, a wit once remarked, is a metaphor for American life – long periods of standing around talking, punctuated by moments of extreme violence.

In most other countries, common sense would surely by now have produced a compromise. But here in the most litigious society on earth, the dispute could end up lining the pockets of some of America's most famous lawyers.

Fighting the NFL owners' case, for instance, will be David Boies, who in 2000 represented Al Gore in his Supreme Court battle with George W. Bush, and is regarded as the country's top anti-trust attorney. Boies's first test will come on 6 April, when a Minnesota court hears arguments on the players' demand for an injunction to end to the lock-out.

But that may only be the opening salvo of DeMaurice Smith's war.

For the moment, football is at a virtual standstill. The annual players' draft will go ahead. But draftees will be allowed no contact with their new teams. No contracts can be signed, no players can be traded, and no summer training camps be convened as long as the lock-out is in place.

And come September, no regular season will start. And come November 24, if there is still no deal? A Thanksgiving Day without the NFL to watch to keep the assembled family sane. If that isn't a threat to life's fabric, what is?

The highest paid NFL stars

Peyton Manning – $15.8m

The quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts is guaranteed to be paid $15.8m per year, but will only receive it in the last year of his contract. At 34 years-old, speculation mounts over how long he can remain America's highest paid football player.

Nnamdi Asomugha – $14.3m

The Oakland Raiders' defensive back is paid an unusually high amount for his position (quarterbacks are generally regarded as the best paid players). He received a total of $28.6m over the past two years, but is due for a raise in 2011 which would see his annual salary rise by another $2.5m.

Donovan McNabb – $11.5m

The Washington Redskins' quarterback may earn one of the top salaries in the business, but his future in the team remains uncertain after the coach benched him for the final three games of the last season. After extra perks, British footballer Wayne Rooney is on a comparable annual salary of £8m, which amounts to around $12.8m.

Roland 'Champ' Bailey - $10.75m

After much gossip about his future at the team, the 32 year-old Denver Broncos' veteran cornerback announced that he had signed a new four-year deal worth $43m in February.

Sam Bradford - $8.3m

The impressive young quarterback may have almost won the coveted Rookie of the Year award, but the $50m deal he signed with St. Louis Rams over six years came under criticism from those who believe veteran players should be paid higher salaries.

Njoli Liston