When a football player, standing by himself, points a finger to the sky, he is usually either giving praise to God or stating, if you were unaware of this fact, that he is indeed number one. Other players have also been known to raise a different finger in fits of self expression. But last night when two teams, billed as bitter enemies, walked onto the field before the start of the NFL season, holding a finger in the air, you knew that this wasn’t business as usual. As the national anthem ended, the defending Super Bowl Champs New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings raised their finger in a gesture directly aimed at the fans and the owners, and the message was clear: “WE are one. We aren’t opponents who want to rip our heads off on the field. We are unionists locked in a bitter labor battle against 32 of the most powerful people in the United States, and we will not be moved.” On the NFL’s website, the heading for this particular clip reads, “Players show solidarity.”   

In a country where unions are ignored when they’re not demonized, it was perhaps the most widely-seen, collectively experienced display of labor solidarity in the history of the United States. Hyperbole? Consider that the game garnered the highest opening night ratings in the history of the NFL. 28% of all households were unexpectedly treated to a taste of solidarity.

Predictably, the game’s announcer, Al Michaels, a proud man of the right who loves slipping in political jabs into telecasts, couldn’t hide his disgust saying with serious snark, “There’s nothing like a labor statement to start the season.” Similarly, on this morning’s ESPN radio show, Mike and Mike in the Morning, former NFL player Mike Golic,  who described himself as a “proud union guy”, said he hated the gesture, calling it counterproductive and alienating to fans. His partner Mike Greenberg echoed that “99%” of the emails they received made clear that viewers hated the gesture. He said, “In every sports labor battle fans side against the players because they are being paid to play a game and people just want to watch.”

I don’t buy it. That may have been true in the past, but this time they’re wrong. For the players, going public was a brilliant move. I don’t know who has the time or energy to email into Mike and Mike in the morning at the crack of dawn, but to judge today’s predicted fallout, the reaction in virtual-land has mirrored the reaction of the crowd at the Louisiana Superdome: one of respect. This shouldn’t surprise us. There are a number of reasons why the political scales tip more toward the players this time around.

1 – The players want to play. Remember, the NFLPA is not threatening a strike. It’s the owners threatening a lockout. NFLPA President DeMaurice Smith has made it clear that the players will play under the existing collective bargaining period until they reach a new deal. If the gates are shut, it’s all on the owners’ shoulders. As Smith said, “I don’t really look at this as a battle between millionaires and billionaires. I look at this as a battle between 32 people who can unilaterally shut down our game, and America who digs it.

2 – Fans are more aware of the beatings these guys take. Scott Fujita of the Cleveland Browns said to me, “We might be the only industry on earth with a 100% injury rate.” The flood of news about concussions, dementia, and all the debilitating realities of the NFL could also mean more sympathy for what players sacrifice in their short careers. It’s the most popular sport by a mile in a country, but a terrible price is paid for our national entertainment. Fans are far more savvy to this reality than the owners realize.

3 – DeMaurice Smith’s message. Smith said to me, “[If there is a lockout], we have 30,000 people who work in our stadiums. They’re locked out. The concession workers and the people who are parking cars in the sleet and the rain for forth or fifth job, they’re locked out. The bars and the restaurants that rely on football, they’re locked out.”

The one-finger-gesture on the field was an expression of common cause and the response in the days ahead might be profoundly more positive than Al Michaels hopes or Mike Golic frets. As Mike Florio from pro football talk wrote this morning, “It’s unknown whether the seed of the idea was planted by anyone from the NFL Players Association.   f it was, it wasn’t a bad idea.  And we have a feeling it’s going to catch on.”