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.


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  • http://cheeseheadtv.com/lounge John Rehor

    Very good read.

    The slavery term by Peterson is asinine, although I can understand the point that he was trying to make. However, it is in my opinion the owners who have caused this mess. They had more than ample time to come up with a solution to end this and failed to do so. Also, as you pointed out, certain owners whose names rhyme with “hones” and “myder” if they had it their way would cause the rest of the league to collapse so they could rule the NFL galaxy. It is a disaster

    It’s not slavery, and any player is free to walk away from the game at any time. What is slavery is now the FANS are subjected to deal with the nonsense that will take place until a new deal is reached. We have no choice but to watch the action unfold over the game we love. It’s completely ridiculous.

  • http://www.pocketdoppler.com BigSnakeMan

    Thanks, John. As I’ve said before, ‘wake me when it’s over’.

  • Justin

    You said, “As a white, middle-class male, I’m sure Rhoden and many pro athletes have a perspective that I couldn’t hope to appreciate…” which might be true, for all I know. But your article doesn’t suggest that you’ve even tried to see their perspective.

    When the word “slavery” is thrown around, it’s usually not in reference to the grueling work athletes endure, or the terrible conditions they live in. I think that almost all athletes like the work and live rather well.

    The word slavery in this context is a little different. It refers to the fact that there is a small group of white owners who bring *their* (largely black) players to town to put on feats of physical prowess for the enjoyment of (largely white) fans. That generic set up seems similar to events that occurred during the period when slavery was legal in this country, and also resembles how other cultures, at other times, have treated slaves.

    If a player feels like he’s a part of this kind of system, then there’s definitely some justification for making the slave analogy that have nothing to do with money, and nothing to do with their health. I don’t think it’s anywhere near the end of the story for being a pro football player, but it might very well be a significant part of how players feel about their employment.

  • http://www.pocketdoppler.com BigSnakeMan

    In my estimation, slavery was a poor choice of words in this instance; its very use is guaranteed to elicit a strong emotional response. To my way of thinking, slavery invokes the idea that they don’t have a choice, which clearly is not the case. The NFL isn’t exclusive to black athletes. One way or another, many of us regardless of our race are subject to the whims of wealthy business owners. In point of fact, because of their singular ability athletes often have more leverage than the average worker, which is usually reflected in their salaries. I would venture to guess that players have no more or less control over their work conditions than I do in my own job.

    In any event, I don’t believe the players’ cause is served by clouding a business negotiation with a socio-economic issue.

  • Chris

    Absolutely spot on! My take is different, but in a similar spirit:


  • foundinidaho

    Yep. I’m a middle aged white female, and AP isn’t, so I have little or no perspective, but that irritated the hell out of me. Shut up, AP and let Drew Brees or De Smith do the talking. At least they seem pretty smart.

    I have to say, I miss Gene Upshaw. This stuff used to go more smoothly when he was around, for the most part.

  • http://www.pocketdoppler.com BigSnakeMan

    “I have to say, I miss Gene Upshaw. This stuff used to go more smoothly when he was around, for the most part.”
    Never thought I’d say this, but Paul Tagliabue as well.