Gary Roberts, one of the nation's leading experts on sports labor and antitrust issues, predicts an NFL lockout that will drag into early September.

"I would say about Sept. 8," said Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law and author of the book "Sports and the Law." "That's when all the feet will be held to the fire."

Sept. 8 is the date the Packers, as reigning Super Bowl champion, would open the regular season with a Thursday night home game, probably against the Bears. But that game and the entire 2011 season are in danger because the owners are expected to lock out the players when the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires on Thursday.

Roberts said the biggest obstacle in the labor standoff isn't economics, an 18-game schedule, a rookie wage scale or health-care benefits.

"This has become a difficult situation that shouldn't be that difficult," said Roberts, a Minnesota native and 1966 graduate of Rochester John Marshall High School. "This is not the NBA, where economics is the problem. In the NFL, there's enough money to go around. In the NFL, I believe it's just a fundamental leadership problem."

Roberts said neither NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell nor NFL Players' Association (NFLPA) Executive Director DeMaurice Smith "can afford politically to blink first." Goodell and Smith are leading CBA negotiations for the first time since replacing Paul Tagliabue and the late Gene Upshaw, respectively.

"Both Goodell and Smith got their jobs because they appeal to the hard-line elements among them," Roberts said. "They can't afford even the perception that they're soft or making the big concessions."

Roberts said pressure is on Goodell because the owners feel Tagliabue "gave away the store" when the current CBA was reached in 2006. That's why the owners exercised their early opt-out clause in 2008, setting in motion Thursday's deadline to create a new CBA.

Voted in as Commissioner on the owners' fifth ballot nearly five years ago, Goodell stepped in immediately as a strict leader with little tolerance for player misconduct. He's maintained that toughness in dealing with Smith.

Roberts said Smith also is in a difficult position, having been an NFL outsider until replacing Upshaw two years ago. Smith is a former partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm and had no previous ties to the NFL.

"The Goodell-Smith relationship is critical," Roberts said. "Tagliabue and Upshaw genuinely believed that the relationship between the league and the players was a partnership. They trusted each other. They liked each other.

"Goodell and Smith don't know each other, don't like each other, don't trust each other, and they see their relationship not as a partnership, but a classic old-line labor-management dispute. That's light years different. We've gone way back into the 1980s in terms of the relationship."

Roberts said he doesn't believe the NFLPA will decertify so that players can have the right to challenge the owners in court.

"This dispute is not going to be settled by an anti-trust judgment," Roberts said. "It would take years for an anti-trust judgment to come down the pike. And the owners are not going to operate the league with an anti-trust judgment hanging over their heads. Neither side is going to sit around paying lawyers and litigating lawsuits for years while the league is shut down. It would be pure insanity."

A lockout during the offseason would shut down all operations, except for the NFL draft next month. Free agency, trades, minicamps, organized team activities and everything else would be on hold. Roberts, however, sees only the threat of losing regular-season games as the urgency needed to resolve the issue. Teams would need some time to reassemble and prepare for a season, and the league would have to decide what to do with nearly 500 players who are scheduled to become free agents.

"At the end of the day, when it's to the point when a deal absolutely has to get done, the deal is going to get done," Roberts said. "I would be shocked if we lost a season. That's just inconceivable to me. This is not a league that's losing a ton of money. There's a huge pie for them to split up."

Mark Craig •