People Need to See a Labor War in the NFL

NFL owners have agreed on a proposed new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Players Association, as the current CBA expires after the 2020-’21 season. The main bullet points of the proposed CBA are (1) expanding the playoff field to seven teams per conference, (2) expanding the regular season from 16 games to 17, (3) reducing the preseason from 4 games to 3, and (4) increasing the labor share from 47% up to 48%, including a bump to 48.5% if the players agree to a 17th game.

As a Chiefs fan I’ve heard arguments from both sides about why an expanded playoff would be good for the team — most practically that Patrick Mahomes is playing quarterback and expanding the field to seven teams only increases Kansas City’s odds on a year-to-year basis of making the playoffs — and also why it would be bad for the team — being that it eliminates one of the first round byes, putting more of a premium on finishing with the best record in the conference — but right now I’m not as much concerned about the games.

To me, it’s all about the money. The fact that the owners have come out and agreed on something, such that they will be able to control the media narrative, makes me suspect. It’s now public knowledge that the league wants to expand both the regular season and playoff field, meaning the goal posts (pardon the football pun) have shifted. There is now an expectation for those ideas, automatically making the Players Association the bad guys if and when they take those things away.

Even though it’s positive that the owners are willing to increase the labor share by a point (or point and a half), I think it says more about the unbelievable profits the NFL is generating rather than a worthwhile concession by the owners. As Ben Volin of the Boston Globe writes, “[T]here is plenty for the players to dislike about this offer, particularly the veterans. Most notably, the owners’ proposed compensation for a 17th regular-season game does not seem like nearly enough. The owners are offering an additional 1.5 percent of revenue (48.5 percent of total revenue), and a maximum salary for that 17th game of $250,000, which is the equivalent payout of a player with $4.25 million annual salary.”

It isn’t an easy task to convince ordinary workers (like me and you) that NFL players — who oftentimes earn more money in one season than most of us make in a decade, or a lifetime — are getting the short end of the stick, but consider just how much capital the NFL annually hauls in. Last year the league made something in the neighborhood of $25 billion, with the Dallas Cowboys bringing home $950 million and the league average franchise doing about $440 million. Even the least profitable organizations, the Raiders, Chargers, Bengals and Lions, earned between $350-$400 million in revenue. 

These are unconscionable numbers to the average worker making $30,000 a year, but it’s the reality for the ownership class. None of the owners are hurting for money. Even an NFL player making $25 million a year would have to play at that salary for 14.28 seasons to earn as much as the least-profitable franchise. A regular American worker making $50,000 would have to work for 500 years just to make what that $25 million a year player gets.

Collective bargaining, in any industry, is a tedious process, and I don’t expect anyone to care about this shit as much as I do. The main idea I want to get across is that while NFL players do significantly better in their bank accounts than normal people, it pales in comparison to the profits of any run of the mill NFL owner. When it comes to professional football, there really isn’t such thing as a “small market team.” These are billionaires who are fighting tooth and nail against the football players who drive the sport’s popularity.

Sadly, whenever there is labor strife the public — average joe’s like you and me — often take the side of the billionaire class. We do this not because our interests align with the ultra wealthy, but because we are ignorant. We listen to the sports media that typically take the side of ownership, who imply that the players (earning millions of dollars) are being greedy. We work our shit jobs that don’t pay us what we’re worth and point our fingers at guys making millions of dollars every year. We think our own personal entertainment of getting to watch football every Sunday is more important than these millionaire asshole players who want to take that away from us.

And we’re wrong.

The truth is, it’s the billionaires who are greedy. They are the ones who control the media and, thus, the narrative. Many earned their wealth by either (a) inheriting it or (b) screwing over their workers, but most of the time it’s a combination of the two.

The same cannot be said of the labor — in this case professional athletes — who are overwhelmingly black and overwhelmingly come from the poorest areas of the poorest states. They were given no breaks from society, had to work their entire lives to be the best of the best, and overcame those odds despite having their neighborhoods and communities kneecapped politically by the same billionaires they are currently fighting against in these CBA negotiations.

That last point can’t be understated. I know there’s a certain type of sports fan that wants to pretend politics and sports aren’t (or shouldn’t be) related to one another. But the reality is billionaires pay top dollar to both political parties for tax breaks, which are then used to further defund social programs which, again, hurt people of color more than anyone else. It’s a triumph anytime an underprivileged kid is able to get a football scholarship and then go on to make a bunch of money in the NFL. And at the same time it’s kind of depressing that if some, or many, or most, of those same athletes didn’t have football, they would be first in line to be left behind in this economy. Go check out what life is like for the underprivileged in Alabama, or Louisiana, or Georgia — football hot beds — and find out for yourself.

Collective Bargaining, whether you like it or not, is an entirely political process. And as the audience of the NFL, and consumers of the sport, it’s up to us to choose which side we are on. I of course have a tiny voice, and of the 400 or 500 Facebook friends I have, I assume only a dozen or so will actually read this. But it doesn’t change that the fight between the Players Association and the owners happens to be the exact same fight ordinary workers have against the billionaire class. That’s why in matters that involve workers against owners, I am going to be on the side of the labor one hundred percent of the time.

I don’t know how these CBA negotiations are going to play out, but I do know I’ll be disappointed if the Players agree to this without making some form of guaranteed contracts a dealbreaker. I know if ownership is willing to increase the labor share of revenue by 1-1.5 percent, then it means the players would be well within their grasp to ask for more on top of that. And I think if the Players were aware of just how much power they hold, they would look to increase the salary cap — which is and always has been the main driver for the owners in keeping labor costs down.

I’m aware that my message isn’t popular. Like I said before, it isn’t easy to convince ordinary American workers that millionaire professional athletes are the ones getting the shaft. There is a large segment of the population that believes these guys should be happy with what they have, as they do have more than most of us will ever dream of.

But at the same time, never forget the true enemy. It isn’t the people at the bottom fighting over the scraps. It’s those at the top who already have it all, and spend tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to fight against the working class so they’ll be able to buy another G5, or another fifty million dollar home. I make this same argument when I write about politics — the idea that billionaires don’t care which political party is in power because the billionaires fund both sides — but it’s also true in professional sports.

I’m in the extreme minority here, but I want to see a work stoppage in the NFL. I want the players to hold out until they get what they deserve, for no other reason than the fact that people don’t tune in to watch on Sundays to see the owners up in their private suits. They watch to see the players, the ones who are generating all the billions of dollars for the league every year. As such, the players deserve a bigger share of the pie.

And in some way, I want Americans to see the power that unions have. When workers come together, they win. If NFL players can manage a victory over their billionaire owners, and if public school teachers can win against their state governments, and if Amazon workers can win against Jeff Bezos, and if Disneyland employees can win against Walt Disney Corporation, who is to say that American workers can’t come together in every industry and defeat those at the very top? America needs to see the NFL Players Association win, because they need to see that they can win, too.

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