I fully intended to stay away from the current collective bargaining dispute between NFL owners and players because the entire concept of a dispute involving so much money holds very little resonance for me as an average fan. But I just saw something on TV that, the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I became.
One segment of this morning’s “Sports Reporters” program on ESPN was devoted to a discussion of Minnesota Vikings’ running back Adrian Peterson’s recent comments referencing the idea of slavery with regard to the modern professional athlete. William C. Rhoden of the New York Times, who has written a book in a similar vein, indicated that he could understand Peterson’s argument on one level and suggested that the money was irrelevant to the conversation. While I generally like Rhoden’s work, I must respectfully disagree with this notion.
As a white, middle-class male, I’m sure Rhoden and many pro athletes have a perspective that I couldn’t hope to fully appreciate, but I’m tired of hearing professional athletes referred to by parts of the media as if they were some sort of oppressed minority. So, athletes are subject to the direction and conditions of their teams. How is that different from every other employee in America? Yes, the careers of pro athletes, particularly in football, are generally short in comparison to other walks of life, and they often risk their long-term health for their pursuit of an NFL career. But that’s all part and parcel of the deal when they sign up; no one is forcing anyone to make that choice. Even at the NFL minimum, players can make more over the course of a few years than many people make in their lifetimes. That’s the conscious tradeoff that they make. It’s not like they’re precluded from doing something else once their playing career is over and if they’re smart with their money many wouldn’t have to if they didn’t so desire. The money is far from irrelevant; every summer, people on Alaskan crab boats risk their very lives for far less.
Look, I’m actually on the players side in this dispute. NFL owners had an economic model that was the envy of every other professional league. Teams had cost certainty with the salary cap and, unlike baseball and basketball, there were few guaranteed contracts to tie them to players who had underperformed their agreements. The popularity of the game is unprecedented and teams received tens of millions in dollars each season in TV revenue before they even sold a single ticket. But because of a few short-sighted owners who hold an inordinate amount of sway with their brethren, management decided to throw it all away. In fact, if owners like the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and the Redskins’ Daniel Snyder had their way, teams like our Green Bay Packers would very likely be put at a competitive disadvantage.
Fans tend to forget that pro sport is a business like any other. The people who make the capital investment assume the financial risk but also stand to make the most profit if things go as planned. Like it or not, that’s how capitalism works. If Peterson feels that strongly about principle, he’s free to take his $11 million salary from last season, find some other backers, and go out and start his own league. But for him to throw around a term like slavery is ludicrous and counterproductive to his own position.