It was described as the billionaires against the millionaires. It was characterized as akin to a nasty (very nasty) marital spat: “If this is the way the owners and players choose to renew their vows to each other in a marriage that really can’t be ended, I would guess both sides still have plenty of work to do on the issue of commitment.” (Don Banks, Sports Illustrated) After the ugly spectacle of prolonged posturing by both sides, last night the players signed off on an agreement that will preserve the sacrosanct American autumn Sunday afternoon: Television and beer, tailgate parties and crazed fans, obscenely skewed revenues and salaries, choreographed violence and the occasional moment of transcendent grace. Football.
The entire process was embarrassing to witness. We’re not talking about a group of overworked, underpaid employees struggling to get a small hike in their minimum wage so that they have the means for a marginally comfortable existence, maybe even send the kids to college. We’re talking players who, even at the lowest rung of the NFL ladder, are making more yearly than many of their contemporaries make in a lifetime. And of course if you’re an elite player, you’re rolling in it. We’re talking owners who, despite having more riches than they can spend in numerous turns of the karmic wheel, still want more. We’re talking franchises that, despite large profits, in some circumstances enjoy tax-exempt status, for heaven’s sake It’s hard to be sympathetic.
The owners claim that they bear the financial risk of losing seasons (and thus their fanbase), the maintenance of elaborate facilities, the rigors of managing large and cumbersome organizations… in other words, for keeping the ball rolling; they deserve the lion’s share because they own the darned thing, after all, and in capitalist America, ownership trumps fairness. The players protest that they deserve a bigger share of the big bucks for exposing themselves to the physical dangers of the game, one in which the typical length of employment is three to four years. After much pressure and initial denials, the NFL finally conceded that concussions are a tragically common occurrence and that many players face post-gridiron years compromised by head injuries and other debilitating conditions. Perhaps that’s why the current labor agreement extends medical coverage to most players for their lifetimes, and extends injury protection.
As far as the rest of it goes, well, gag me with a spoon. I’m sure the details are important in the context of that world, but for the rest of us, all that matters is that football will be happening this fall. Training camps can begin as can the trash-talk and the swagger.
I love football, I admit it. I like its speed, its athleticism, its rare but truly thrilling moments. I love it when my team wins and I know what it feels like to bask in reflected glory when one’s team wins it all. And I believe that, occasionally, a championship season can lift up a wounded community: just remember what happened in post-Katrina New Orleans when the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010. Or the recent triumph of the Japanese women’s soccer team in the World Cup. Professional sports can make a difference.
Men sometimes will be boys, and sometimes boys don’t grow up. But sometimes games grow up and big and the NFL, for both owners and players, is big business. Game on.