Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs (no, I don't mean Tony Siragusa)

I hate the NFL off-season as much as I love the regular and post-season. The four months from early December to early April mark that hideous piece of football analysis known as draft predictions. If a college football star gets caught for drunk driving or tweaks a knee, people rush to predict the impact this will have on his draft placing: will he go fifteenth or will he slide to twenty-first?

So, naturally, it was hard for me to care when the owners locked out the players, despite the impact on actual football being played. I do vaguely remember the players responding by decertifying their union and then suing the league as individuals, though after that I assumed that things would sort themselves out. This, clearly, is not the case.

Football is not unique in its struggle over how to divide up a pie that is larger than it used to be. After all, even if everyone in society gets richer in absolute terms, we (most of us, anyway) would still have an issue with the wealth of all members of society relative to each other. That the owners want a bigger piece of the pie than they have right now hardly makes them unique.

Where the facts might get obscured, perhaps rightfully so, is in the absolute wealth of everyone involved. These are not striking factory workers, teachers or bus drivers. These are all very wealthy people, although how long they have to cash in on their wealth is limited by time, circumstance and health.

That's why no one really plays in the NFL just for fun, at least they shouldn't. At stake, in a league where the average career is four years, is a chance to make yourself and your family financially secure for the rest of your life. This is a side of the argument that appears lost on reductionist fans who, as they've shown over the past few decades with respect to violence in the game, care more about their personal entertainment than the players or their well-being.

The owners get criticized for being greedy billionaires, but how are they different from any other business owner? Generally it's accepted that a business owner will seek whatever advantage available to them, and if teachers, bus drivers and retail workers are overpaid, surely football players are overpaid as well. If the NFL owners operated in the same way as a major corporation, they would simply move the league to China and reduce salaries to a hundredth of what they are at the moment.

Naturally, everyone has interests, but this debate obscures them by being about the curious slice of popular culture that is professional sports. Ultimately, what's at risk is the popularity of football, which has never been higher and continued to grow in spite of confusing rule changes and what was then a looming labour conflict. Other sports exploited the gap left by baseball in 1994, though it's arguable that many of those changes were societal changes which would have dethroned baseball anyway.

It's conceivable that football loses the popularity it enjoys right now, as unfortunate as it would be. While both the players and the owners have legitimate grievances and legitimate interests, equally legitimate is our exasperation at how people so wealthy and so popular could squander it over comparatively small problems.

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