After unilaterally ending the collective bargaining agreement, the NFL formally locked out its players, refusing even to allow access to team weight rooms. The Oakland Raiders removed pictures of their star players, such as Darren McFadden and Nnamdi Asomugha, from the homepage of their website. As I write this, the lead story on the site is the upcoming auditions for the 2011 Raiderettes, "Football's Fabulous Females."
While way too many bits and bytes will be generated over the football lockout, there are some important lessons to be learned if one peers through the testosterone fog of sports reporting.
Big-time sports is an odd duck. Other than in natural disasters, there are few things that make a community come together like support for a sports team. Class, race, and gender issues appear to slightly recede in the face of fervor for "our" team. But in reality, the teams are businesses owned by individuals or groups of individuals — 31 super-rich individuals. Only one team, the 2011 champion Green Bay Packers, has a type of public ownership.
We hear about Raider Nation, but Al Davis owns it and profits from it. The Dallas Cowboys call themselves "America's Team," but they're owned by the Jerry Jones family.
A common refrain of sports commentators in the wake of the lockout is to proclaim a pox on both houses, reducing this issue to "overgrown egos and massively over-inflated senses of self importance clashing" or a fight of "billionaires vs. millionaires." But these claims of moral equivalency on the two sides are fairy tales. As the sportswriter Dave Zirin writes, "You have 31 of the richest people in the United States — people with generational wealth, people whose children's children will make Tucker Carlson look like Big Bill Haywood — going against a workforce with careers that last just 3.4 years. It's a workforce that draws almost exclusively from poorer socio-economic backgrounds."
Part of the fight is about the desire of the players to not get maimed when they play the game, or at least to get respect and care when injuries occur. Football is a sport of gladiators. Like the spectacles in the Roman Colosseum, the lives of the participants are short. At the start of every season I am newly shocked at the level of violence. NFL players have an injury rate of 100 percent, and the number of concussions continue to rise. The players made health and safety an issue in the contract negotiations, but no agreement could be reached.
The catalyst for the breakdown in negotiations, however, was the refusal by the NFL to provide full financial records for the players to evaluate. I thought the gifted mediator, George Cohen, an old acquaintance of mine, would get a settlement hammered out. But the powerful like to keep their secrets, as we were reminded when WikiLeaks published the US State Department cables.
According to Matthew Futterman of the Wall Street Journal, who is doing the best reporting on the real issues at stake, the NFL continues to demand that player salaries be cut by $750 million. In response, the players have asked to see full information to back up the league's claims that it needs a larger share of the revenue pie. Echoing the line of the Marx Brothers and cheating husbands everywhere, the league refused transparency and told the players to trust them, essentially saying, "Who you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"
As Futterman reported, "The central thrust of the NFL's argument is that player costs are threatening profits." But today every team is profitable and network television reports that NFL games are "the most valuable television programming available."
The NFL has long been planning this lockout, a time-honored ploy of an employer who is trying to beat its workers' union. To prepare, the league signed broadcast deals that were to pay some $4 billion a year even if no games were played. The players have challenged these deals in court, and last month US District Court Judge David S. Doty, a Reagan appointee, said, "The record shows that the NFL undertook contract negotiations to advance its own interests and harm the interest of the players."
In response, the players have pulled out the old sports-union playbook, decertifying their union and moving the legal fight from mainstream labor law, which has been going in management's direction since the days of President Reagan, to anti-trust law, in which the players get to make the same arguments that businesses make. Being on the side of business is the only consistent way to win in federal courts today, as the decisions nearly always follow the money.
Channeling Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the Journal's Futterman has put his finger on the real issue — in the current operative definition of "progress," businesses in a capitalist system need to grow. The NFL "has run out of new ways to make another quick $1 billion, so it's turning its focus to the biggest piggy bank of all: its own players." Futterman noted that the "larger question behind this entire labor fight" is the refrain that companies must show "steady growth over time." So we are faced with the question of what kind of "progress" should we want, an issue that the slow-growth and buy-local folks have been discussing for years.
The NFL owners are not saying they cannot pay; it's just that they will not make enough profit if they do pay. They've been fat and happy over the last few years. Ticket revenues doubled from 1997 to 2007, money from television rights jumped into the stratosphere, and taxpayers donated nearly $500 million a year to the 31 owners for new stadiums from 1993 to 2005. But today, owners can't raise ticket prices much, taxpayers don't have money to give for new stadia, and growth in broadcast revenue has stalled. Certainly we in the Bay Area know about stadium issues and the demands of wealthy owners for taxpayer cash.
So, like many businesses today, if the rate of profit growth slows, even when they are making fat profits, NFL teams have decided to take on their employees.
Sure, these workers seem different from you and me; they are our high-paid heroes. But they're workers nonetheless — workers who trade short-lived money and fame for busted bodies. If football players are treated fairly and allowed to make informed choices to choose this life, so be it. I will enjoy it when they're back.