John Buell

My Football Fantasy

By the time this column is published, that grand spectacle of American sports, the SuperBowl, will be upon us. Yet hardly has the season ended before fans are not only contemplating next year’s prospects but also wondering if there will be a season. NFL owners are demanding a new collective bargaining agreement that will substantially curb the salaries of its players. They ground this claim on a dramatically weaker economy and fans’ natural desire to economize in tough times. Players in turn have signaled resistance to the owners’ demands.

Left sports columnist Dave Zirin has correctly pointed out that this struggle is important to more than football fans. Football is now our most watched sport and it plays a central role in both reflecting and shaping cultural values. How this struggle is resolved might well resonate with and affect other labor management issues that have a more tangible impact on most citizens.

Zirin persuasively argues against viewing this as a struggle between millionaire athletes and billionaire owners. The players make the game great and we the fans do not come to “watch Jerry Jones stalk the sidelines.” Injury rates in this sport are extraordinary, approaching 100%. The frequency and extent of these life-altering injuries becomes clearer every season. Nonetheless, the owners seek to impose a rookie salary cap and play a longer season. Players, even rookies, should be able to make as much as the market will bear.

I largely sympathize with Zirin’s argument, but my take is that if the NFL player’s association is to gain more sympathy with the fans, its union must connect with other labor struggles. More visibility in support of struggles by the hotel and restaurant employees who provide the accommodations where players stay or the nursing staffs that provide the care for injured players would be a great place to start. Injury rates in these occupations are not 100%, but we are learning that the incidence of repetitive motion injuries from changing ever-heavier bed linens and moving heavier patients is far greater than ever recognized.

Zirin also properly faults the owners for citing the economic collapse but then proposing no reduction in ticket, parking, or food and drink charges for ordinary fans. Their taxes — often regressive sales taxes — have financed many of the new stadiums that benefit both players and owners. The players union itself might step into this void with a concrete proposal for reduced ticket prices. This action would constitute a sacrifice on the part of both players and owners for the fans. (The size of such a giveback might be based on the level of municipal subsidy the teams were receiving.)

Perhaps the most significant and enduring cultural statement the players union could make would be to ask: who needs owners? Given the reluctance of some networks to challenge the NFL and pre-exisitng contracts with some stadiums, players could not make as much money as currently, but they would be able to generate far more than chump change.

I acknowledge this scenario would be the greatest upset in sports. Players currently lack the political consciousness to contemplate let alone attempt such endeavors. Among many daunting tasks would be that of deciding on formulas and procedures to choose rosters and allocate income between star and average players. Nonetheless, citizens, just like fans of any team, are entitled to their fantasies. Even serious discussion of this possibility might shake our politics. It could send a shiver down the spines not only of NFL owners but also of many other Fortune 500 owners, CEOs and Boards of Directors.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2011

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