by David Bernt
Following a year of record-breaking TV ratings and team profits, one would expect the NFL to be basking in the glow of its emergence as the most popular sport in the United States. Instead, the cloud of an impending owners’ lockout of players looms over the 2011 season. The owners and the NFL Players Association are in contentious negotiations. As we go to press, talks have been extended until March 11.
While NFL owners collected over $9 billion in revenues in 2010, an astonishing sum when considering the league and teams employ only 3500 full-time employees, they are asking for major concessions from the players. The NFL owners are asking players to give back an additional $1 billion in shared revenue and for them to agree to extending the NFL season by an additional two games.
Currently, the NFL calculates team salary caps based on a share of total league revenue. Players receive 60% of revenue minus a deduction of $1 billion off the top, which goes straight to the owners’ pockets. The NFL is demanding that players agree to a deduction of $2 billion.
Owners have presented the extension of the NFL regular season to 18 games as a win-win for both sides, since revenues would increase even more as a result. Of course, it’s the players, not the owners, who would pay the consequences of the increased hits from two more games. Football is by nature a violent game, and the long-term consequences of the repeated hard contact to the head endured by players is just beginning to be understood. In just one example of the several studies done on the affects on players’ health, a 2009 study commissioned by the NFL found that among former players Alzheimers and other memory-related diseases were 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30-49 than among the general population.
NFL players are highly paid entertainers by the standards of most working people, and media coverage tends to simplify the dispute as one between millionaires and billionaires. But a quick look behind the numbers shows that most NFL players have the same uncertainty and precariousness in their lives as most workers.
While the average NFL salary is $1.8 million, less than a quarter of players make that much. More than half of NFL players earn salaries under $1 million. For every story a sports fan reads of elite players signing contracts with bonuses in the tens of millions, there is the practice squad player making $5200 a week for 17 weeks (with no benefits) hoping to make the team to collect the league minimum of $295,000.
While all those dollar amounts are way beyond what any factory worker could dream of, consider that the average NFL career is merely three years. Within those three years, NFL players literally put their lives on the line to provide the entertainment that generates the $9 billion.
While owners cry poverty, they are making billions on the backs and concussed brains of players. Like the bankers and other corporate giants, they get a hefty hand out from taxpayers. In the past 20 years, NFL teams have received over $7 billion in taxpayer subsidies to build or renovate stadiums, with the average team receiving 65% of its stadium financing through taxpayer subsidies.
NFL players have made connections between their own struggle and that of the broader labor movement. Several players on the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers released a statement in support of the struggle of Wisconsin public workers.
Packers team captain Charles Woodson released a statement: “Thousands of dedicated Wisconsin public workers provide vital services for Wisconsin citizens. They are the teachers, nurses, and child-care workers who take care of us and our families. These hard-working people are under an unprecedented attack to take away their basic rights to have a voice and collectively bargain at work.
“It is an honor for me to play for the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers and be a part of the Green Bay and Wisconsin communities. I am also honored as a member of the NFL Players Association to stand together with working families of Wisconsin and organized labor in their fight against this attempt to hurt them by targeting unions.”
Here’s the line-up: Billionaire owners who receive billions of dollars in taxpayer funding to showcase modern-day gladiators versus the gladiators themselves who risk their lives to provide us with world-class entertainment and who stand in solidarity with their fellow workers’ struggles against the bosses. Doesn’t sound like millionaires vs. billionaires to me. Which side are you on?
> This article was originally published in the March 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.