The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To watch a video of the author discussing the first time he met Muhammad Ali and other reflections from his latest memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter, click here.
There’s nothing like a little dust-up between millionaires and billionaires to start us thousandaires yawning. And when the upcoming pro football season is in danger of being canceled because of it, we’re likely to say: a plague on both your mansions.
Too bad, because the struggle between labor and management in the National Football League not only reflects the attacks on unions across the country but conjures up, even if in cartoon fashion, some crucial American issues: racism, classism, sexism, recreational violence and the healthcare gap. No wonder football seems to have replaced baseball as the national pastime.
While the legalities of, and mathematics behind, the issues at the heart of the NFL dispute may be complex, the basic issues are not. The league’s owners cry economic woe while refusing to open their books. They insist on adding two games to the regular season of sixteen games and at the same time are trying to reduce the players’ share of revenues. Moreover, they have been remarkably unwilling to guarantee long-term health benefits to the players, even as evidence mounts that dementia and early death are linked to the sort of brain trauma commonly suffered in football collisions.
It’s not exactly a fair fight, which of course is why unions were invented. It’s estimated that half of the NFL owners are worth at least $1 billion each, while slightly less than half of NFL players make more than $1 million annually. The average player’s career lasts fewer than four years.
Most traditional sports media—while claiming to represent those thousandaires, the fans—have framed the battle as one between rich, greedy young men versus very rich, very greedy older men. The young men, so goes the present media line, were overpaid in the good times and now, like everyone else, must give back in the economic bad times for the sake of the game. Not surprisingly, this greedy-versus-greedy take on a football dispute that threatens the upcoming season is hardly likely to engage the empathy of TV viewers who just want to watch the game as a respite from joblessness, foreclosure or the problems that come from inadequate health insurance.
In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t all that different from the way the larger labor struggles of American society have been framed recently. Greedy, overpaid municipal employees, for example, watching the clock until their bloated pensions and benefits kick in, are bleeding beleaguered governments supported by the rest of us. OK, your basic offensive lineman isn’t exactly like a beleaguered teacher or nurse, but the key element of the plot to destroy his ability to bargain collectively against more powerful forces is the same: make him the alien "other"; make him different from us.