Last August, I wrote the following:
I’m the schmuck in line at the gate, ready to part with fistfuls of hard-earned jack I should spend on more important things. I’m the tool with a family of five, all dressed in jerseys on gameday. I’m the fool at the bottom of the pyramid scheme, the rube all this is built upon, the mark they’re all getting rich off of . . .
. . . and I’m the kid in front of the TV set, eyes as big as saucers, watching Barry run. Owners, players, coaches, front office, staff, agents, flaks, and all the rest: please. Remember me. Remember us. Remember who really bears the financial burden here—and ultimately, who really holds the cards. Baseball, 1994? Hockey, 2005? We are the golden goose, and you have your hands around our neck.
The union has now decertified, and the NFL has locked the players out.
Throughout this process, fans have had a hard time choosing a side. It’s almost impossible to identify with the players; they’re the top 1% of the top 1% of the top 1% of athletes. They achieve incredible levels of fame and success—in most cases, before they’re old enough to buy beer. They, likely, were the most popular kids in school from a very young age, and had grown adults following them around like puppies from high school on. They’re the ones we see on the field, week after week, making athletic feats we couldn’t dream about doing on our best-dreaming day look routine. We stand in line for hours for a chance at getting their autograph. We melt into babbling idiots when we do get that chance. They are our heroes, they are our idols, and we’d do almost anything to live life as them, even for a little while. What a charmed life, we imagine, they lead.
NFL owners are a different lot. Like politicians and bureaucrats, some seem like familiar characters: Jerry Jones, Al Davis, Dan Snyder. We know how they look, how they talk, what they like, the decisions they tend to make. Others, like William Clay Ford, practically never talk to the public, but we put words in their mouths anyway. Between the very public business decisions they make, and their few public statements, we come to know these men as caricatures: like Donald Trump or Bill Gates, we make them accessible—human—by reducing them to the ridiculous.
I’d like to credit our American ideals, our society’s ingrained belief that every single one of us is just some elbow grease and a lucky break away from being fabulously wealthy. The fact of the matter is that many of these men either built enormous businesses from the ground up, or had wealth—and the team itself—gifted to them. We simply cannot imagine how far removed we are from that world. Witness the public outrage when The Big 3 CEOs flew in private jets to Washington to ask for a bailout! Oh my goodness! As if that wasn’t the way they normally got around!
But NFL athletes? Most of them live in the same world we do for most of their lives. As I’ve said before, I went to college at Michigan State, in an athletes' dorm. I hung out with a lot of football players—and while I got to see just how Big of Men on Campus they were, I’ve also heard where they came from, and seen what’s happened to them since. Most knew they didn’t have a shot at playing on Sundays. Some couldn’t finish school. Some bounced around the Arena League, NFL Europe, and the CFL before getting regular jobs. One even signed with the Lions as a UDFA, went through one day of training camp, and hung ‘em up; through a mutual friend I heard he figured being a gym teacher was easier than two-a-days. One got drafted #2 overall by the Lions . . . now he’s got a horde of mouths to feed and an eight-digit settlement hanging over his head.
Of course, players like Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh had supportive parents, charmed high school and college careers, and signed enormous NFL contracts that will set them up for life. But, for every single one of them, there are thousands that played D-I college ball, had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and now punch a clock.
Throughout this process, the NFLPA has honest and communicative with me and the fans. Yes, they've tried to get "their message" out—but whenever they've stated facts, they've been facts. The players have repeatedly reached out to bloggers and fans on Twitter, through email, and via phone to explain what’s going on from their perspective. Meanwhile, I’ve written several open letters to the Commissioner, and privately tried to contact NFL spokespeople multiple times; I might as well be talking to a wall.
NFL lead counsel Jeff Pash said yesterday that “the absence of an agreement is a shared failure," and I wholeheartedly agree. But the Commissioner’s latest letter to fans does nothing but explain why it’s all the players’ fault. Meanwhile, DeMaurice Smith’s statement apologizes, at length, to the fans and players, while recognizing the efforts of past players who fought to build the league into what it is today. Whose statement rings more true to you?
What’s that? It’s an internal NFL flowchart, created to explain their decision-making process. It’s one of the key pieces of evidence Judge Doty referred to when ruling that the NFL violated the CBA. It’s proof that they decided to lock the players out years ago, and jury-rigged the last round of TV contracts to fund a “lockout insurance” war chest. Maybe that just sounds like prudent planning to you—so here’s an analogy.
Imagine if Ford decided the current UAW contract gave too much money to the workers, and that they’d seek major concessions at the next renewal. So, they went to their dealerships and said, “Hey, will you guys agree to keep paying for cars, even if we’re not making any? We’ll sell the cars to you now at a discount.” Then, they sell the cars (that workers built) to the dealers at a discount, thereby making themselves less profitable. Then, they tell the UAW they’re less profitable these days, and demand major concessions. When the union asks for proof, they lock them out—then line their pockets with the money dealers are paying them for non-existent cars. Meanwhile, the workers with mouths to feed and mortgage payments to make have little but their personal savings.
There’s a reason Judge Doty ruled this trick violated the Collective Bargaining Agreement: it’s low-down, dirty stuff. First they shortchanged the players of deserved revenue, then they set up a war chest that would ensure the players caved first . . . all because they weren’t quite wildly profitable enough. This tactic puts the lie to all of the “give a little, get a little” talk the NFL office has been spouting from the get-go, and to all of the “the players decided to walk away for no reason” talk they’re spouting now.
Of course, it certainly appears as though the league made significant movement as the last minute. Today, the NFL and the Trade Association Formerly Known As The NFLPA have wildly differing opinions as to what the NFL’s last offer entailed. So now, a lockout, and the battle will be settled in the courts. Likely, free agency will start sometime before the draft, and business in the NFL will proceed in something kind-of resembling normal fashion.
There’s an argument to be made that we shouldn’t even be paying attention; that all sides admit there will certainly be NFL football in 2011. That it’s a dispute between two groups we cannot influence, who don’t care about us. That we should shrug our shoulders and focus on free agency and the draft and everything else we normally do, and plug our ears and go LA LA LA LA LA about everything labor-related until there’s football again. I flatly can’t do that; I’m too invested in these players and these teams. Plus, it tickles my Justice Thing.
I don’t know what makes people root for the most fortunate to get more fortunate. I don’t know why working folks repeatedly side with the people exploiting them. I don’t know why, after the owners opted out of the CBA, demanded a billion dollar give-back, and refused to justify it with financial data, almost 40% of ProFootballTalk readers think this is the “players’ fault.” If you want to ignore all of this and wait for football, that’s fine. But if you’re inclined to choose sides, stop and think about who really needs your support—the wealthy old men who’ve harvested billions from fans for decades? Or the young guys who’ll likely be selling cars or teaching gym in five years?