The NFL is preparing to head into the 2010 season without a salary cap, and the beginning of the 2011 season could be delayed -- or, worse, the entire season scrubbed -- because of a lockout, as bickering owners and players seek to find common ground on a new collective-bargaining agreement.
Various professional sports leagues have been down this winding path before, which leads to several questions being raised, not the least of which is, "What will all those free-spending athletes do to maintain their lifestyle when their big paychecks stop coming for a few weeks or a few months?"
Although certain diva-ish wide receivers might have to resort to selling some bling to keep the Maserati gassed up until the games resume, at least one player has a viable Plan B to no football in 2011.
Tommy Zbikowski, the former Notre Dame All-America safety and punt returner, was named the Baltimore Ravens' special-teams player of the year for 2009, but his hard-hitting ways aren't limited to the field. An accomplished amateur boxer who had his first sanctioned fight at age nine, Zbikowski has had one professional bout: On June 10, 2006, he filled in some of the time in the summer before his junior campaign with the Fighting Irish by stopping heavyweight Robert Bell in one round at Madison Square Garden.
Zbikowski was paid $25,000, a handsome recompense for a debuting pro. Promoter Bob Arum acknowledged that Zbikowski's school affiliation played a part in the decision to give him such high-level early exposure.
"Oh, absolutely," Arum said in acknowledging that Zbikowski probably wouldn't have gotten the Garden gig had he played his college football at, say, Weber State or Northern Iowa. "Notre Dame has a cachet to it in athletics and the popular culture."
Which is not to say that Top Rank, the company Arum founded in 1966 and has advanced the careers of such novelty acts as Eric "Butterbean" Esche and Latina beauty Mia St. John, regarded Tommy Z as just another oddity.
Arum was so sold on Zbikowski's future as a boxer that he left the door open to his taking up the sport again should football stop working out for whatever reason.
Not that he hopes a new CBA won't be in place in 2011, but Zbikowski said he's more than ready to duke it out for fun and profit should circumstances dictate a shift in his priorities.
"If (a work stoppage) happens, I won't be sitting around, doing nothing," he vowed. "I'll do something I'm good at. I won't lack for something to do."
Like a return to the ring?
"It's tough to hold it in sometimes," Zbikowski, 25, said of his love for the sport. "A lot of people don't understand how addictive boxing can be.
"The first game I played in Notre Dame Stadium, I had chills. When you went out before the game to loosen up, the stands were only half-filled. Then when you came out before the opening kickoff, the place was packed, the band was playing and you couldn't wait to get going. Just an unbelievable feeling.
"But as incredible as all those football Saturdays were, there's nothing like the buildup to a fight. There's no feeling quite like walking out to the ring. There just isn't. You're not part of a team; you're not going out for a coin toss to see who's kicking off and who's receiving. It's just you and the other guy.
"You get some quick instructions from the referee, you touch gloves and the bell rings. And if you're standing there with no padding, no helmet and in front of 15,000 screaming people in Madison Square Garden, it's like nothing else."
At six-feet and 208 or so pounds, Zbikowski is a smallish heavyweight who conceivably could trim down to cruiserweight if need be. He still imagines himself playing for the winning team in a Super Bowl, and of having his hand raised and a tuxedoed ring announcer saying, "And the new heavyweight champion of the world ... "
One dream that went unfulfilled was Zbikowski's desire to represent the United States in the 2004 Athens Olympics. He was a young backup defensive back at Notre Dame, and then-Irish coach Tyrone Willingham apparently took a dim view of his players moonlighting.
"I can't say I'm bitter, because I have a lot to be thankful for, but all my favorite fighters when I was coming up were Olympians," Zbikowski said. "I liked Roy Jones, Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather. David Diaz was out of the same Chicago gym as when he fought in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics."
"It's nobody's fault, really," Ed Zbikowski, Tommy's father, said of his son's unhappy absence from the Olympic trials. "Willingham didn't really understand the fight game. He even told Tommy later, 'If I knew it was that important to you, I would have redshirted you or whatever, so you could have gone.' "
One other current NFL player, Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, has entered boxing as the manager of former IBF junior welterweight titlist Kendall Holt, and the 6-4, 264-pounder has suggested that he'd like to lace up the gloves himself. Arum, ever the showman, thinks it would be kind of neat if Zbikowski were to square off with Jacobs, a former amateur boxer in his home state of Louisiana, during an NFL lockout.
"Every athlete in a team sport somewhere along the line has thought about boxing," Tommy Zbikowski said. "Some have even tried it (former NFL players Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Alonzo Highsmith and Mark Gastineau among them). Maybe they got punched in the face and didn't like it, but I guarantee they came away with a healthy respect for what it takes to be a fighter.
"Being a good athlete isn't all that's required. Boxing is an art. I have no artistic ability when it comes to painting, acting, singing, dancing, playing a musical instrument. But boxing is my art form. My opponent can be a better athlete than me, but every move he makes, I'm prepared to counter. I'm always trying to set something up that's going to pay off at some later point in the fight.
"To me, that's an art."
In other words, if Jacobs wants to test him in the ring, Zbikowski is prepared to teach him a painful lesson.
"I've been paying my dues since I was a little kid," he said. "Just because you're a really good athlete doesn't mean you can jump into boxing and do it well. It doesn't work that way."