July 3, 2012 8:47 am
Professional athletes, football players specifically, may fail to elicit sympathy reserved for typical subjects of workplace discrimination – Super Bowl Quarterbacks and Teamsters, State Employees and Teachers inhabit different worlds – yet recently, they have all engaged in fierce battles with management while negotiating contracts through their respective unions.
New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees, the undisputed hero of Super Bowl XLIV, lent the NFL Players Union franchise player cachet by agreeing to act as a named Plaintiff in a 2011 antitrust lawsuit challenging management’s lockout of players. The lawsuit and union pressure eventually led to the negotiation of a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement that was amenable to both sides. Brees, a Super Bowl champion, perennial pro-bowler and offensive player of the year, has recently had trouble coming to terms on a contract with the Saints. The NFL Players Association (NFLPA), the labor organization representing players, has submitted an official letter to determine whether Brees ‘advocacy on behalf of the NFLPA has made it more difficult to negotiate a contract.
In an op-ed for The Nation, Dave Zirin lauds Brees’ staunch support of the players’ union in the contract dispute. Zirin states: “In fall 2010, it was Brees who led a procession onto the field in full view of the Sunday Night Football cameras with one finger in the air, a symbol that both teams—the Saints and Vikings—were actually one team united against ownership.” Brees serves on the Executive Committee of the NFLPA, stood alongside Players’ Union Executive Director Demaurice Smith at the approval of the new labor contract, and consistently acts as a spokesman for players’ issues. The NFLPA’s intervention has struck some as favoritism on behalf of the union, but there is a real chance of discrimination here – if the Saints are punishing Brees for his involvement with the union they stand in clear violation of Collective Bargaining Agreement Provision, Article 49, Section 1, which reads: “There shall be no discrimination in any form against any player by the NFL, the Management Council, any Club or by the NFLPA because of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or activity or lack of activity on behalf of the NFLPA.” Zirin broadens the scope of Brees case, calling on the AFL-CIO to issue a statement in support of the star player in solidarity with embattled union members everywhere, Zirin says: “This country’s trade union movement has been in free fall for decades, from a high of 35 percent in the mid 1950s, to a seventy-year low in 2010 of fewer than 12 percent. If the message from the NFL is that being an active unionist is grounds for intimidation and punishment, then the AFL-CIO needs to make it plain: an injury to one is an injury to all.”
Not all professional football players are beefing with management over minimum salaries ranging from the mid to high six figures – the management of the Arena Football League makes their NFL counterparts look like magnanimous patrons of gridiron gladiators – the entire Pittsburgh Power Arena Team was summarily dismissed during a pregame meal at the Olive Garden in March.
Players and owners butted heads in salary negotiations this Spring, with the Union (AFLPA) exercising its right to strike and causing the cancellation of a game last month. The stereotype of the pampered millionaire athlete simply doesn’t apply in this case – AFL Football players were making about $400 a game (Quarterbacks are paid a higher fee), and were not given health insurance. The league suggested a $100 per game raise, as well as a 7-year contract. These terms were not acceptable to the Players Union. So strike they did, and sure enough, management responded. The AFLPA and the league successfully negotiated a five-year contract last month – John Stember, attorney for the Players Union spoke about the new agreement in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He states under the new contract, players will receive, “basically about twice as much as they’re getting now.” If a precarious group of professional athletes exists in 2012, it is made up of AFL players. Stember comments, “One of the things both the owners and union were hearing was that there were too many players coming in and out, not enough stability, and we just think this is going to be a big step toward stopping that.”
It’s a tale of a league with a TV deal worth 3.1 billion a year, and a league with professional players who make about as much as a low-level fast food employee. Despite the cameras, or lack thereof, the struggles of professional football players are not dissimilar from those of represented workers in all industries. As NFLPA Executive Director Demaurice Smith puts it: “The minute that any sports player believes for whatever reason that they are outside the management-labor paradigm, you lose ground.”