When Rush Limbaugh was unceremoniously dumped in his efforts to secure a share of the St. Louis Rams, he may have been little more than collateral damage in a brewing collision between NFL owners and the NFL Players Association. After the union raised objections, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell squashed Limbaugh like a water bug. Given the potential conflict between NFL management and labor, Rush was a public relations disaster Goodell could hardly afford.

The collective bargaining agreement is due to expire at the end of the 2009-10 season, and all signs are that an era of labor/management partnership is not at hand. As Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King wrote in late October, “It’s going to get ugly. There’s better than a 50 percent chance, I believe, of some work stoppage in 2011, as incredibly golden-goose-killing as that sounds.”

The negotiations will occur in the context of a new study showing that retired NFL players suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and the early onset of dementia at five times the national rate–nineteen times for men under 50. Congressional hearings on football head injuries were held on October 28. Both Goodell and NFLPA president DeMaurice Smith will be pressed to address this during the upcoming negotiations.

But that will require a spirit of cooperation that may not exist. The issues that separate the two sides seem minor: the union wants more financial transparency while owners want to dial back concessions they made under the last contract, including giving players a greater share of the revenue. But the two main sources of tension aren’t on the bargaining table. The first is the economy. The NFL, long thought to be recession-proof, is feeling the squeeze. In the best of times, football is a blue-collar game at white-collar prices. But this year attendance has dropped, in part because some teams have raised ticket prices in the midst of a deep recession. A family of four, purchasing modestly from the concessions, now has to pay more than $400 to see a game. The result is that empty seats dot stadiums around the country. This leads to blackouts in the local TV markets. In 2008 only nine games were blacked out during the entire season. In 2009 Jacksonville alone has already announced that it will most likely have to black out all eight of its home games. The league will want to cut costs in this difficult climate, and the union will feel a need to hold the line. The golden goose has clearly lost a bit of its luster.

The NFL is only the highest-profile example of the economic crisis pervading the world of sports. The league’s redheaded stepchild, the Arena Football League, had to cancel its last season. After more than half the Major League Baseball teams raised average ticket prices this year, twenty-two of thirty saw attendance drop. And the Ladies Professional Golf Association has seen the flight of corporate sponsorships, while the Women’s National Basketball Association has reduced roster spots in anticipation of declining revenue.

The men’s NBA has looked particularly vulnerable in the current climate. The league took out a $200 million line of credit to aid financially ailing teams. Commissioner David Stern tried to spin this as a sign of the league’s health, but few were fooled. The NBA is also due for contract negotiations after the 2010-11 season, which could make the NFL battle look tepid by comparison.

While the dire economy is the primary reason to bet against labor peace in the NFL, another good one is NFLPA president Smith himself. The Players Association is generally seen as the weakest of the sports unions. The NFL is the only league without guaranteed contracts. Smith, who was elected in March after the sudden death of Gene Upshaw, wants to show that despite not being a former player he will be strong for his players. Upon assuming leadership he said, “There isn’t a day where I don’t hope for peace, but at the same time, there isn’t a day where we won’t prepare for war.” Smith has told ESPN that he has called upon his players to put aside 25 percent of their salaries over the next two years. “I look at the way in which it looks like we’re moving to this lockout, and first and foremost, we have to be in a position where our young men are in a position to be able to take care of themselves and their families,” he said.

This combative stance, along with declining revenues, is signaling to many an NFL-watcher that the golden goose might soon be cooked.