A Tale of Two Unions


By Derek Rosenfeld

The parallels between the current National Football League (NFL) owners’ lockout and the present fight between state politicians and firefighter and other unions around the country are extremely dubious. As it stands, big business interests are essentially scapegoating their employees to promote an illusion of the “fiscal responsibility” and present an image of toughness, which seems to elicit the sympathy of loyal, easily manipulated voters.  

The lapsing of the NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) at the behest of the owners is yet another example of the wealthiest trying to get more, more, more by locking out the people who helped generate the revenue that allowed them to be the wealthiest in the first place. The $9.4 billion in revenues that the NFL generated in 2010 was being divided too equally for the owners to handle, according to these actions. As of this writing, players are barred from their practice facilities and stadiums, and the owners are demanding $1 billion in concessions.

The biggest question surrounding the situation is whether the league’s lockout represents an appropriate labor tactic or an antitrust law violation. The players stand to lose an incredible amount of money and their very livelihoods should no professional football be played this year. Under the lockout, players can’t use NFL facilities, teams can’t sign or trade players, and coaches and players can’t contact each other. The sport’s drug-testing program is suspended and agents are unregulated.1

Although the dollar amounts at stake are vastly different, the general purpose of and atmosphere surrounding the proceedings between owners and players and between politicians and firefighters mirror each other in ways that may escape the average football fan. As it is, in the new fight against unions (including those of teachers, police officers, and other state- and local-level personnel), firefighters are portrayed as overcompensated employees sucking their states dry financially. Never mind that there are other, WAY bigger fish to fry when it comes to state and national deficits and spending, but easy targets are easy targets.   

Another parallel between firefighters and NFL players that may not be immediately apparent is the way they put their health and, sometimes, future quality of life on the line when performing their jobs. Certainly, running into a burning building with the possibility of not coming out alive is much different than trying to tackle a wide receiver who runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash and bench presses 450 pounds. But for those few NFL players who play longer than the 3½-year average NFL career, the toll that those years of intense pounding and unmitigated brutality, where a life-altering concussion looms with each play call, can leave retired players with a lifetime of physical and mental anguish.

Over the past decade, football luminaries such as Mike Ditka and Don Shula began chiding the players union and its president, now-deceased NFL Hall-of-Famer (HOFer) Gene Upshaw, on the severe lack of necessary medical care that former players received. Several sports media outlets began covering the healthcare plight of ex-players and the seemingly endless stream of financial and physical hardships they suffered while current players received huge paychecks. Upshaw faced controversy in 2006 when some 325 retired players from the American Football League and NFL came forward with accounts of receiving minimal disability benefits.2 Upshaw’s response? That it was his job to take care of CURRENT players.

Around the country, many notable former players such as Baltimore Colts HOFer John Mackey and New York Jets Quarterback Ray Lucas have become focal points in the increasing outcry from former players in need who simply cannot afford much-needed healthcare after the league essentially discards them. As of today, there are no new provisions on the table for retired player’s healthcare benefits in the new CBA.

On April 25, Federal Judge Susan Richard Nelson, chosen on March 26 to mediate the players’ lawsuit against the owners for locking them out (after the players dissolved their union to file the lawsuit), ruled in favor of the players in an 89-page decision.(1) On April 29, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the league a temporary stay of Nelson’s ruling; the league reinstated the lockout following the second day of the 2011 NFL Draft.

According to the NFL owners and state politicians, their respective employees are making, or stand to make, too much money. With “too much” money comes “too much” power, and the owners and politicians feel that if the unions receive the same deal as before, the greater revenue would allow these employees greater control in what owners/politicians consider to be THEIR domain. Instead of riding the wave of popularity and cash where everyone wins, they revert to their old-world tactics of trying to keep their financial distance from the employees and the peasants who fill their coffers. As it is with this lockout, so too is it with this newfound scapegoating of firefighters.     

  1.   www.washingtonpost.com/sports/nfl_labor_judge_rules_in_favor_of_players_but_lockout_might_not_end_immediately/2011/04/22/AFVPMwkE_story.html?nav=emailpage.
  2.   http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=3545830.

Images found of Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Anonymoususer and DoubleBlue.

Derek Rosenfeld is an associate editor for Fire Engineering. He is beginning his sixth season as the assistant baseball coach at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey. He is also an infielder for the semipro North Haledon (NJ) Reds. During the mid-90s, Rosenfeld was a three-year starter at second base for the Ramapo College baseball team in Mahwah, New Jersey, where he earned all-New Jersey Athletic Conference honors and was a two-time New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association (NJCBA) all-star selection. He was named MVP of the 1997 NJCBA All-Star Game. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Ramapo College.  



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