Leave it to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to end a thrilling NFL regular season on a sour, ugly note. As football fans, sports radio devotees, and chat-room obsessives gathered Monday to discuss the playoff seedings, Goodell issued an ill-timed letter laying out the state of negotiations with the NFL Players Association. Both sides are striving to secure a new collective bargaining agreement and avoid labor Armageddon, but based on Goodell's letter, that's where the similarities end.
In the letter, Goodell seems to be following a tried and true strategy: blame the union and sow resentment between the fans and the players they pay to watch. But in taking a closer look at his musty missive, Goodell also establishes himself as a stalking horse for a broader, systemic strategy being used by governors and captains of industry across the country. It’s a strategy that for all the focus-tested language has one end-goal: getting workers to work harder for less.
- First, blame the economy: Goodell writes: “Economic conditions… have changed dramatically inside and outside the NFL since 2006 when we negotiated the last CBA. A 10 percent unemployment rate hurts us all. Fans have limited budgets and rightly want the most for their money. I get it.” Does he get it? There is nothing about lowering prices for tickets, concessions, or parking. Instead he goes on to blame the greedy unions for making decent wages and benefits as the reason why there may be no football in 2011. As Goodell writes, “Yes, NFL players deserve to be paid well. Unfortunately, economic realities are forcing everyone to make tough choices and the NFL is no different.” This is the sporting version of something far broader and more pernicious as public sector workers are becoming the Willie Hortons of our economy. They have become the 2011 scapegoat of choice as politicians impose the coming austerity. AFSCME has even started a campaign called "No More Lies" to counter the myths of the greedy unionists destroying state budgets.
- Goodell goes on to lay out his vision for a brighter future. This brighter future includes players not only playing for less but also working more. As Goodell writes, “An enhanced season of 18 regular season and two preseason games would not add a single game for the players collectively, but would give fans more meaningful, high-quality football.” Then without irony and with no transition, Goodell leaps right into his deep care and concern for players’ health, writing, “Our emphasis on player health and safety is absolutely essential to the future of our game.” Yes, play longer but nothing is more essential than the health of the players. As Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said in comments aimed at Goodell, "If you were so concerned about the safety, why are you adding two more games? They don't care about the safety of the game.... They’re hypocrites."
- Then Goodell goes after the salaries of rookies, calling for a “rookie pay scale.” He writes, “All we're asking for is a return to common sense in paying our rookies. Other leagues have done this and we can too.” This is also ridiculous if not immoral. Any sport where each play can be your last, should reject any notion of a pay scale. Players in this most violent of games should be able to make as much as the market will bear and not a penny less.
Goodell finally ends with some blather about wanting to achieve this kind of “forward looking CBA” and “protecting the integrity of the game.” But there is no integrity in Goodell’s vision: only the same blueprint for workers we are seeing across the country: work more, take less. I am sure that there are many who would read this with little sympathy for NFL players as workers. But please consider: a typical NFL career is three and a half years and as NFL player Scott Fujita said to me, “We’re the only business with a 100% injury rate.” The ratings for the NFL this season have never been higher and no one ever paid hundreds of dollars to see Jerry Jones stalk the sidelines.
But it’s even bigger than all of that. Goodell finishes this ill-timed screed by writing, “This is about more than a labor agreement. It's about the future of the NFL.” It’s also about the future of this country. We are living in a time of severe economic crisis. Whether the bosses or workers are made to pay for this crisis will be decided in battles large and small taking place around the country. But for all of these conflicts, there will be no greater stage or more amplified battleground than that between NFL owners and players. The vast majority of fans have a side in this fight. And it’s not with Roger Goodell.
[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]