I rarely feel sorry for pro athletes and I certainly don't feel sorry for Tommie Harris. He entered the NFL as a refreshingly funny and supremely talented defensive lineman but leaves the Bears as a cantankerous, underperforming stiff who was fined and suspended often for acting like a jerk.
Still, the Harris situation underscores why I don't blame NFL players for trying to get the best deal possible in their labor struggle against the owners -- even if it means the game gets shut down for a while.
Unlike athletes in baseball, basketball and hockey, the vast majority of NFL players don't have guaranteed contracts. They do get a large chunk of money upfront, which discourages teams from cutting them early in their contracts, but every time you see something like a six-year, $60 million deal, be aware that it really isn't that.
Harris was cut with a year left on his contract so the Bears could save millions of dollars. Despite having a contract that runs through next season, Harris won't get a dime of his projected 2011 salary.
Moreover, NFL players are much more likely to suffer devastating injuries than their MLB, NBA and NHL counterparts. I'm not just talking about injuries that could shorten their careers, such as the knee blowout that pretty much ruined Harris as a player several years ago. I'm talking about truly devastating injuries that make it difficult for them to live normal lives after their short careers end.
So not only do NFL players have much briefer windows of opportunity to earn big money, they have much better chances at having a lousy quality of life after their careers are finished. And they have "contracts" that can be taken away at any time.
Now, nobody is forcing any football player to be a football player. Don't like the risks? Be a carpenter, rocket scientist or blogger.
Just remember this when choosing sides in the player-owner debate: If the owners don't give the money to the players, they simply pocket it. They certainly aren't going to lower ticket prices. Nor are they going to repay the taxpayers they fleeced for sweet stadium deals.
To be sure, it's not a great choice: greedy millionaire athletes who think they are entitled to riches and fame ... or greedy billionaire owners who are always scheming to make still more money.
Given that choice, though, I usually side with the jocks. They're the ones putting their limbs and life on the line, especially in the NFL.
The owners are only putting their cash on the line, and rich people always seem to find ways to get plenty more of that -- almost always at the expense of hard-working folks like you and me.