|DeMaurice Smith said that the players and the union were 'truly sorry' for the fans [GALLO/GETTY]
American football's 2011 season was in severe jeopardy after the National Football League locked out its players to instigate its first shutdown since 1987.
Fans who have made a September tradition out of NFL openers find themselves in limbo along with owners and players and must now look to judges and lawyers and a bitter court fight that could lead to cancelled games.
"We will get it done, and getting it done means not missing any football," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones vowed.
Billionaire owners and millionaire players could not agree on how to divide $9 billion in annual revenues, 16 days of negotiations with a federal mediator proving fruitless when the players union decertified on Friday afternoon.
That opened the door for players to take legal action on anti-trust grounds and a group that included superstar quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady filed a class-action lawsuit in Minneapolis.
Claiming violations of the Sherman Act, an anti-trust law that limits business monopolies and commerce restrictions, players seek treble damages for perceived wrongs by the NFL, so the lawsuit could cost owners staggering sums.
Hours later, when the twice-extended contract deadline for the prior NFL-union deal finally expired, the NFL followed by imposing a lockout, a move that players will also try to fight in court.
"We have worked hard as a player leadership for two years to prevent this moment. To the fans, we are sorry it came to this. You deserve better. I am truly sorry. The players are sorry"
DeMaurice Smith, NFL Players Association executive director
"The league has informed the union that it is taking the difficult but necessary step of exercising its right under federal labor law to impose a lockout of the union," a Saturday statement from the NFL said.
"The clubs believe that this step is the most effective way to accelerate efforts to reach a new agreement without disruption to the 2011 season."
Calling the NFL Players Association decertification move a "sham" that "will merely delay the process of reaching an agreement," the NFL told supporters, "We know you want football. You will have football. This will be resolved."
That is the major question that began being asked in 2008 when owners voted to opt out of a labor deal that would have lasted through the 2013 season. An answer remains no closer now than it was then.
"We have worked hard as a player leadership for two years to prevent this moment," NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said.
"To the fans, we are sorry it came to this. You deserve better. I am truly sorry. The players are sorry."
When players were locked out 24 years ago, a shortened season included teams of replacement players who crossed picket lines to train – and when they took the field for games – three weeks before a settlement was reached.
On Friday, players said they were willing to stay with the old contract
terms but owners rejected that idea just as players would not go along with an 11th-hour compromise offer from owners.
Owners make $1 billion off the top of revenues each year for operating expenses and players make 60 per cent of the remaining income. But owners wanted another $1 billion and a greater percentage of the remaining money.
Owners claimed they were hurting despite record television income and audience interest, the past two Super Bowls being the most watched programs in US TV history.
But players demanded audited financial information for the past decade for the league and its clubs, something the NFL was unwilling to provide as evidence of their claim for a greater chunk of the revenue.
"Financial transparency would help us reach a compromise," Smith said.
"Even until the last moment, we were rebutted.
"The last 14 days, the National Football League has said, 'Trust us', but when it came time for verification, they told us it was none of our business."
Terms of the lockout shut down all NFL activity, from signing free agent talent to organising off-season player workouts to even simple communication between teams and players.
An NFL Draft of top collegiate talent is set to be staged next month but teams won't be able to sign them to contracts.
A rookie wage scale demand from owners was among the issues that could not be resolved at the bargaining table.
Players will have to pay for their own health insurance because clubs will no longer spend money on policies for them.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and top league lawyer Jeff Pash made good a vow to cut their salaries to $1 during the lockout.
Goodell typically makes about $10 million every year, about twice the compensation package of Pash.
Salaries will be cut for league headquarters personnel by 12 per cent, with deeper cuts planed in August if the legal fight is not resolved in time for the start of pre-season exhibition games.