Beyond all the self-pity and spin coming from the offices of National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell, here is the naked truth: we face a lockout and the prospect of no pro football in 2011 because the union made a three-word demand that would not have cost the owners a dime—open your books.
DeMaurice Smith and the NFL Players Association wanted access to ten years of financial audits so they could see why the most successful sports league on earth was claiming to be financially embattled. They wanted to know why the owners could feel justified in asking for 18 percent cuts in player compensation. They wanted to know why—despite all we now know about the brutal hazards of the sport—the owners could insist on adding two more regular-season games. But the owners refused to open the books, offering instead, as the NFLPA described it, “a single sheet of paper with two numbers on it.” This single sheet would be available to the union only after being vetted by an independent third party.
It’s unclear why the owners have made a deal-breaking fetish of financial secrecy. We can only assume that the books would not be flattered by the light of day. We don’t know if their private ledgers would provoke the IRS into giving them something less pleasant than a body cavity search. We don’t know if the audits would demonstrate that owners leveraged their franchises and then took a bath in the 2008 economic crash. We don’t know if individual NFL owners—like their Major League Baseball counterparts—lied to local governments so they could get more taxpayer cash for stadiums. Given the financial state of baseball’s New York Mets, whose owners flushed their liquidity by partnering up with Bernie Madoff, we should be forgiven for fearing the worst.
The NFLPA also offered to consider various benefit cuts in return for an ownership stake in the teams. The owners responded as if the players had arrived at negotiations wearing white after Labor Day. NFL outside counsel Bob Batterman reportedly responded, “My clients aren’t interested in being partners with your guys.” It’s this kind of plutocratic contempt that’s poisoned the well.
The Players Association, feeling derided and disrespected, has now decertified the union so it can sue the league and forestall the owners from shutting down the sport. As a certified union, NFLPA is forbidden from suing the league and owners are shielded from labor law violations. But as a decertified trade association, it can bring lawsuits on everything from the lockout to the legality of the NFL draft. Litigation isn’t pretty, but going to the courts means the NFLPA can get an injunction and stop the lockout.
Fans, labor activists and progressives should stand proudly with the players. It’s a lockout, not a strike. The NFLPA has said repeatedly that its members will play under the existing contract until a new agreement is reached.
A March lockout might mean little to fans, but for players it constitutes a direct threat to their health: an off-season lockout means they will have no access to team trainers, doctors or physical therapists. Remember, this is a league with a 100 percent injury rate. A March lockout also means that healthcare for players and their families is officially cut off. One player’s pregnant wife had her delivery induced before the lockout deadline so it would be covered by the NFL’s health plan.
A common accusation in this dispute, as in most pro sports labor wars, is that this is just “billionaires versus millionaires.” That is a ridiculous assertion of moral, not to mention economic, equivalency. Here’s the reality: you have some of the richest people in the United States—people with generational wealth, people whose children’s children make Tucker Carlson look like Big Bill Haywood—going against a workforce with careers that last just 3.6 years on average.
It’s a workforce that draws almost exclusively from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s a workforce that will die some twenty years earlier than the typical American male. As Jaclyn Fujita, wife of NFL player Scott Fujita, wrote, “I don’t know that we were fully aware of the ultimate reality of the National Football League. We learned the hard way that he would work his ass into the ground, playing every defensive down and special teams, and would be the lowest paid man on the roster. That he would experience multiple concussions, but remain on the field. That he would suffer full ligament tears and shouldn’t have been walking, but team doctors would tell him it was a ‘minor sprain’ and should still play. That even though you have given your heart and soul to a team, they can easily replace you with a rookie who has never played in the NFL before” [see Zirin, “Wish of an NFL Wife”].
Last I checked, no one except the seriously maladjusted goes to games to eyeball the owners’ box, no matter what megalomaniacs like Jerry Jones think. The players are the game, but they are being treated like pieces of equipment.
Players are demanding to see the owners’ financial ledgers, to choose their own doctors and, for the first time in NFL history, to be treated like grown men. It’s remarkable that these twenty-first-century gladiators are praised by the media when they show so-called “manhood” on the field by playing through pain but are derided when they refuse to be treated like children.
This is happening for one reason and one reason only. The owners want to show the players who’s boss. But it won’t just be the players who get hurt. Every stadium concession worker, every restaurant worker, every last person who, in these dyspeptic times, depends on the stadium to eke out a living will be affected.
The NFL Players Association understands that it needs solidarity from working people to win. That’s why it has issued statements supporting everyone from the public sector workers in Wisconsin to the trade unionists of Egypt. The players know what side they’re on. We should too.