In case you have not been paying attention, the owners of the National Football League (NFL) teams are maneuvering towards what is called a “lock-out” in March 2011. Their aim is much the same as those of other titans industry and finances these days (and their political allies): to destroy the labor union of the workers (football players—the NFL Players’ Association) and gain take-backs from the workers (the football players).
The term “lock-out” refers to an employer’s tactic of not allowing workers to go to work in order to force them to accept the employer’s terms in a negotiation. It is almost a reverse strike. The idea is to get a workforce that is not prepared to strike out on the streets until they cave in. The assumption behind a lock-out is an employer’s belief that they can financially hold out while the workers collapse.
In the case of the NFL, the owners believe that they can hold out. Why? Largely because of the deals that they have with the television networks that—hold onto your hats—guarantee that money will come flowing into the owners’ pockets irrespective of whether there are any games.
So, is this simply a battle between millionaires and billionaires? No, this is more akin to a battle between the rulers and the gladiators. Each week during football season young men do battle in front of millions of viewers. While many of them earn a pretty penny, the ramifications of playing football can be traumatic, if not catastrophic, as dramatized in Oliver Stone’s excellent film Any Given Sunday. The injuries can be severe enough to kill or permanently cripple an individual. This has, in fact, been one of the major issues that the NFL Players Association (the union representing the NFL players) has been attempting to bring to the attention of the public.
The owners’ objective is fairly simple. They wish to reduce their costs and raise their profits. These are the same people who have strong-armed city after city to build new football-only stadiums at the cost of the public when such stadiums have been proven to be of little economic benefit to an economically depressed urban area. In either case, the owners, much like the Republican politicians who are attacking public workers these days, are attempting to blame the players for the exorbitant costs associated with tickets. Needless to say, the owners walk around any discussion of the profits that they accumulate and the extravagant skyboxes that they insist be built in these modern arenas that we know of as football stadiums.
While many people may write off this dispute as of little relevance except to the millions who will miss out on NFL football during the 2011-12 season if the lock-out takes place, it is important to go beneath the surface. Leaving aside the formal stance of each side, what is at stake is the question of whether owners will succeed in placing the burden of costs on the employees. They do this, as we see in other pro-corporate rhetoric these days, by attempting to suggest that some workers are paid too much; or that you—whoever you happen to be—would be better off if some other worker were to receive a cut in pay and benefits. There is a term to describe this and it is the race to the bottom. Another term is crabs in the barrel.
What is in common in employer rhetoric, whether it is the rhetoric of the NFL owners, government officials speaking about public workers, or corporate types attacking auto workers, is something one learns in watching a magic show: keep the audience distracted and focused away from what is really going on. Thus, in a society where the polarization of wealth rivals anything since the Great Depression with so few people owning so MUCH of the wealth, the employer class would have us focus on the salaries of football players, civil service workers, or unionized factory workers as being the alleged cause of our suffering rather than the fact of the immense wealth that the employers have accumulated.
Pay attention to what is happening in the NFL. It is far more important than any game.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of “Solidarity Divided.” He can be reached at email@example.com.