If the 2011 NFL draft was lacking in dramatic last-minute deals, fans can thank the owners. They have chosen to lock players out, stopping trades and barring players from training camps. If a deal is not reached soon, the league will be forced to cancel at least some preseason games. The traditional rookie symposium in May, which helps to integrate new players to the league, was cancelled.
Owners initiated a lockout on March 10, when negotiations with the players’ union broke down. The next day, the players decertified the union and filed an injunction that the lockout violated antitrust law. A judge ordered it to end on April 25, but an injunction four days later kept it in place. In May it was extended through June 3, when the appeal will go before the courts.
Labor disputes are about three things: wages, hours, and conditions. Even though a handful of NFL superstars make millions, for many players the issues here are no different. The average NFL player makes several hundred thousand dollars per year, but only works for three years. In their brief stint, these players withstand injuries that haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Body injuries leave many broken down, and blows to the head leave former players more susceptible to memory loss and early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Rookies, who make the lowest salaries in the league, are hit the hardest by the owners’ proposal. Needless to say, this will have the greatest impact on the lowest-end players.
In the 2010 season, the league caused a stir by imposing heavy fines on players for illegal tackles, especially helmet-to-helmet contact. This fake show of concern for player safety was a transparent attempt to justify an expansion to an 18 game season. The owners want to add two additional games, which would increase the strain on players and further shorten their careers. A few fines, arbitrarily enforced, will hardly change this.
A handful of football players may seem overpaid and distant from the working class, but they are the core of an industry that brings in over $9 billion in annual revenue. Players, coaches, and staff earn every penny of this. Meanwhile, owners hold cities ransom, threatening to move their teams unless taxpayers bankroll the construction of new stadiums. These cost hundreds of millions of dollars that are never replaced by the low-wage jobs they create.
As the players have emphasized, the lockout threatens more than 100,000 jobs in industries around the stadiums and games. Teams have already begun to cut personnel in their offices, although the owners are guaranteed television income even if no games are played.
While the NFL lockout works its way through the court, a similar situation is lurking for the NBA. The basketball players’ union has already filed unfair labor practice claims with the NLRB, and a lockout looms on June 30, as the NBA owners seek a 38% rollback in player salaries.
But there is another approach to sports. Like labor’s turn to mass resistance, Wisconsin shows a way forward. The NFL champion Green Bay Packers are a community-owned nonprofit team. No single owner towers over the Packers; they will never relocate. Yet the franchise has been consistently good, and often excellent.
The NFL bans other teams from being owned by their communities, granting the Packers a specific exemption. But this is a better way to do sports—as an institution for the benefit of the community. In an era when two major sports teeter on the edge of losing seasons to greed, it’s a model well worth emulating.
> The article above was written by Wayne Deluca and first appeared in the June 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.