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.