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Football’s back: 18-week NFL lockout over

July 26, 2011

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— After months of public nastiness and private negotiations, of court filings and rulings, of players and owners squabbling over more than $9 billion a year, NFL fans finally saw the handshake and heard the words they awaited: “Football’s back.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith both used that phrase while standing shoulder-to-shoulder Monday, announcing their agreement on a 10-year deal to end the lockout that began in March.

Then came what may truly be the lasting image of the dispute’s resolution: Indianapolis Colts offensive lineman Jeff Saturday wrapped one of his burly arms around New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and enveloped him in a hug — a gesture that symbolized the acrimony’s end more than any statement could.

“I’d like, on behalf of both sides, to apologize to the fans: For the last five, six months we’ve been talking about the business of football — and not what goes on, on the field, and building the teams in each market,” Kraft said. “But the end result is we’ve been able to have an agreement that I think is going to allow this sport to flourish over the next decade.”

Owners can point to victories, such as gaining a higher percentage of all revenue, one of the central issues — they get 53 percent, players 47 percent; the old deal was closer to 50-50. There’s also a new system that will rein in spending on contracts for first-round draft picks.

Players, meanwhile, persuaded teams to commit to spending nearly all of their salary cap space in cash and won changes to offseason and in-season practice rules that should make the game safer.

One important compromise came on expanding the regular season from 16 to 18 games, which owners favored. That can be revisited for the 2013 season, but players must approve any change.

“Both parties were trying to stand their ground — and rightfully so,” said Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, one of the 10 named plaintiffs in the players’ antitrust suit against the league that will now be dropped. “In the end, against all the negativity that was out there publicly, they took their time and hammered out what I think is going to turn out to be one of the best deals in the history of sports.”

An interesting choice of phrase, given that Smith and some players grew fond of calling the owners’ last offer before talks fell apart in March “probably the worst deal in sports history.”

Here was Smith’s take Monday: “We didn’t get everything that either side wanted ... but we did arrive at a deal that we think is fair and balanced.”

Now comes frenzied football activity, starting immediately. Club facilities will open to players today, when 2011 draft picks and rookie free agents can be signed, and teams can begin talking to veteran free agents. Training camps for some teams may begin as soon as Wednesday.

“Chaos,” said Jets fullback Tony Richardson, a member of the NFLPA’s executive committee. “That’s the best word for it.”

Only one exhibition game was lost: the Hall of Fame opener between the Bears and Rams, scheduled for Aug. 7 in Canton, Ohio.

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