Antonio Cromartie will never be invited to a bargaining table, which is probably best for both him and his fellow players. Still, the Jets' cornerback may have offered up the most concise, if profanity filled, description of the looming labor dispute that will soon hit football fans everywhere like a giant Super Bowl hangover.

"You've got our head union reps acting like an (expletive), and they got their guys acting like them (expletive)," Cromartie said earlier this week.

Not exactly the deepest of thoughts, though a lot of fans surely feel the same way. They want to know they'll be seeing football next season instead of listening to the league and the players' union argue over percentages and guarantees and who knows what as they try to hash out a new contract to share the riches both already enjoy.

Millionaires against billionaires. Tough to pick a side in this one no matter who is doing the arguing.

League executives had to be high-fiving each other after Cromartie's comments at the thought the players may not be as united in their cause as the union suggests. That may or may not be true, though Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck found out it's not wise to throw in Cromartie's direction when he suggested in a tweet that Cromartie didn't know what a CBA (collective bargaining agreement) is.

"Don't erase it," Cromartie said in a responding tweet. "I will smash ur face in."

If you think things are starting to get ugly, just wait. The clock is starting to tick even more quickly, and both sides are digging in for a battle that seems to have no chance of ending well.

More evidence of that came Thursday, during a week in which traditionally everyone has a chance to catch his breath before the hype machine shifts into another gear for the Super Bowl.

At what should be a time of celebration, the NFL used the opportunity to spread its message of gloom and doom. With barely a week to go before two old school teams meet in Jerry Jones' new palace, a half dozen league executives invited reporters in to remind them that the game could be the last one in the NFL for quite some time unless players come to the table prepared to make concessions.

The billionaires believe they gave the farm away five years ago when they caved in to an agreement with the millionaires in Paul Tagliabue's last big act as commissioner. They seem determined to get it back, no matter what the cost.

"We've said we don't have anyone to blame but ourselves," said Jeff Pash, the league's chief negotiator. "But it's not an agreement that has worked out in a satisfactory way and so rather than kick the can down the road another four or five years, let's figure out how we can get a system in place that will be positive for players and positive for clubs. "

Translated, that means the billionaires want even more billions. And the best way to get them is to take some of the millions away from players who currently are guaranteed nearly 60 percent of the league's $9 billion annual revenue after owners take the first $1 billion.

The union, of course, is quite happy with things the way they are. About the only major thing players want that they don't have is guaranteed contracts, and NFL owners would rather give up and fold the league rather than agree to that.

Union President Kevin Mawae admitted as much this week in comments to Sirius Radio that he may come to regret.

"I think what really happened is in 2006 we got such a great deal," Mawae said. "I mean, the players got a good deal and the owners felt they got it handed to them and it's kind of a revenge factor, 'Let's get back what we felt like we lost,' and things like that."

It's becoming increasingly clear the union is going to lose something. Just how much depends on how hard the NFL pushes and how well the players stick together.

So far the NFL is pushing hard, with Pash warning that the date to get a deal done is by the March 3 expiration of the current contract, not in the weeks before the start of the next season. He claims the league will lose $120 million without a new agreement by early March, $350 million if there's no CBA by August and $1 billion if no new contract is in place until September.

And it may be increasingly hard for players to stick together — see Cromartie's comments — especially if the league's figures of 495 players being eligible for free agency or bonuses if a new agreement is in place are accurate. Those players are going to want to cash in, even if it means high draft picks may get less money and there will be an 18-game regular-season schedule.

Right now, though, there are no full negotiations going on and none scheduled. And that's fine, at least for one week.

Let the Packers and Steelers give us a Super Bowl to remember.

Then try to forget about the NFL for a while as the real games begin.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org