In 1987 Tex Schramm, then general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, told Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), “Gene, here’s what you have to understand: we’re the ranchers and you’re the cattle, and we can always get more cattle.” Schramm’s statement perfectly reflects the arrogance of NFL owners and how they view player-employees and the collective bargaining game. It has been pointed out many times that the major sports leagues reflect the structure and operations of major corporations. In corporations, employees are essentially viewed as exploitable commodities and replaceable parts. It’s the same for professional athletes.
The difference is that while players may be seen as the cattle, they are also the workers who raise the cattle. They are the labor and the product, and therefore more difficult to replace. As former NFL great Brian Mitchell said, “The NFL is like going to a great steakhouse. The players are the chef. But they’re also the steak!”
During the most recent lockout—the longest work stoppage in NFL history—the owners neglected this fact, so they paid a terrific price. The owners, led by commissioner Roger Goodell, believed they could shut down the entire 2011 season. They believed they would be paid by the networks even if they didn’t deliver a product. They believed they could take the most successful product in the American entertainment landscape and get more. They wanted to expand the season from sixteen games to eighteen. They wanted dramatically reworked revenue distribution. They wanted more control over the lives of players. Make no mistake about it: they lost.
There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, the players, led by NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, stood together. The hundreds of athletes showed extraordinary solidarity, considering that a typical pro career lasts only 3.5 years; the pressure to get back to work must have been intense. Divisions were more apparent on the ownership side, where many chief executives started to grumble that they were killing the golden goose, especially after a court ruled that they couldn’t receive network money for games that weren’t broadcast.
Second, the owners were wildly off in their prediction that fans would turn on the players. That’s the way it has always been in sports labor conflicts. At best, fans have seen it as “millionaires versus billionaires”; at worst, fans have jeered at anyone who would complain about “getting paid to play a game.”
But not this time. The most obvious reason for the profound shift in fan sentiment is that it was a lockout, not a strike. The players’ slogan, “Let us play,” reflected the fact that they—just like the fans—were happy with business as usual.
Also, there is far more consciousness now among fans about the physical toll—including concussions as well as the deadly disease ALS—that football takes on the human body. This is a sport with a 100 percent injury rate. The fact that commissioner Goodell would express sympathy for the physical plight of players even as he demanded two extra games in the season (which, according to polls, fans didn’t even want) seemed immoral and greedy.
And finally, workers across the nation have taken it on the chin at the hands of big business. This lockout would have sent to the unemployment lines stadium workers, parking lot attendants and everyone else who scrapes by thanks to NFL Inc. Steeler All-Pro Troy Polamalu seemed to capture the moment when he said, “It’s unfortunate right now. I think what the players are fighting for is something bigger. A lot of people think it’s millionaires versus billionaires, and that’s the huge argument. The fact is, it’s people fighting against big business. The big-business argument is, ‘I got the money and I got the power, therefore I can tell you what to do.’ That’s life everywhere. I think this is a time when the football players are standing up and saying, ‘No, no, no, the people have the power.’”
Standing strong together and going for the win is an attitude NFL players have been taught from day one. It served them well in a lockout that no one predicted they would win. In fact, one anonymous source in the union said, “These guys are so competitive, some of them don’t want to settle for a bigger piece of the pie. They want the whole bakery!”
Winning this battle didn’t only secure for the players a fair collective bargaining agreement. It didn’t only increase the earnings of veteran athletes, strengthen benefits and mercifully keep the season at sixteen games. It also raised even more important questions, which NBA players should be asking as well: What do we need owners for? Players are the game—no one shows up at Cowboys Stadium to watch Jerry Jones pace imperially up and down the sideline. We should be asking why we can’t have more fan-owned teams, similar to the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers—that’s a team with 112,000 owners. Why can’t players get equity and even ownership of the franchises themselves? And why can’t a big chunk of the revenues that players produce go back to the communities where they play? A thick percentage of all proceeds at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field goes to local charities. Given the current state of our cities, this would be a huge benefit to urban America. Also, think about how this argument combines the logical and the radical. It opens up discussions about economic democracy that the people who run the NFL—and the people who run our country—would prefer we not have.
Pro football is a players’ and fans’ game. The fans come to see the players, and taxpayers build the stadiums. The one irrelevant element is the owners. It’s time for a change.