In week six of the 2007 NFL season, Kyle Eckel, the fourth-string running back for the New England Patriots, ran for a one-yard touchdown with nineteen seconds left. Given that his team was already beating Dallas by fourteen points, reigning sports theorist Bill Simmons offered the play as an example of the ”Eff You TD.” Four weeks after that, playing against the venerable Joe Gibbs, New England created a second category, the Eff You Second Half, going for it on fourth and one from the Redskins’ seven, up 38-0 in the third quarter. New England’s motivation was clear. Following the opening game of that same season, the Patriots had been caught video-taping their opponent’s defensive coordinator signaling on the sidelines. This practice, widespread, largely useless and actually legal until the 2006 season, nevertheless looked like grand larceny when attributed to the decade’s most successful franchise by a media already hysterical over steroids in the dugout and point-shaving on the court.
The resulting outcry left the new NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, with two unpalatable options. The first was to punish the Patriots negligibly, in proportion to the seriousness of the crime. But two decades of willful Major League blindness to the hat size of its star players made this impossible. Had Goodell stood up and said what most professionals knew, namely that SpyGate, as it came to be called, was the football equivalent of picking one’s nose, football would have appeared just as compromised as baseball or basketball. The second option, which Goodell chose, was overkill. He fined the franchise half a million dollars and Pats coach Bill Belichick a personal quarter million, and docked the team a first-round draft choice—which, given the importance of young talent in the salary-cap era, effectively sent the entire organization to bed without supper for the year.
This saved the league’s reputation at the expense of New England’s. The team’s owner, Bob Kraft, was said to be privately furious despite his public mea culpas, while Belichick, never one for the spotlight, did an ungainly two-step to highlight what had been a general and widespread indifference to a benign practice without openly contradicting the league’s stated position on its nefariousness. Meanwhile Tom Brady, the overachieving sixth-round pick, remained largely silent, the chip suddenly restored to his shoulder. As had become custom, he and his did their talking on game day, tilling salt into the hallowed fields of NFL stadiums from Buffalo to San Diego. When they arrived in Glendale, Arizona, for Super Bowl XXLII, the Patriots brought the first 18-0 record in league history, having outscored their opponents 589-274 while shattering every conceivable offensive record. They were hated coast to coast with a vigor and intensity worthy of the greatest team in the most popular sport in the largest and most powerful empire in the history of the world. And a little more than a month after Tom Brady’s desperate last-second Hail Mary flew just past the outstretched hands of Randy Moss through the cool desert evening and into the turf, Bear Stearns collapsed overnight.
The NFL lockout, which officially began last Friday, will not have the same effect as the evaporation of one of the world’s most notorious investment banks. Nor will it present anything as epic as the Sophoclean climax of the 2007 season. Instead, the lockout feels like an eff you TD: a practically superfluous cruelty designed to prove a larger point. In the case of the Patriots, the thrust was clear: we are victimizing your defense without a camcorder, verily, we never needed it in the first place. Imagine if Barry Bonds, whose seventy-three home runs broke the single-season record in 2001, had returned as his old beanpole self in 2002, having quit the dope in the offseason, and hit a hundred home runs. You can’t imagine it, and that’s why we continue to hear about PEDs, but not so much about Spygate. The league’s message to the players and the fans in the recent struggle is not much different from the Patriots’ in 2007: we own you, regardless.
Typically assumed to be a billionaires’ club, NFL owners are actually a delightfully eclectic mix. Only half are actual billionaires; the rest are merely multi-multi-multi-millionaires. There are first of all the scrappy family businesses made good, like the Rooneys of Pittsburgh and the Halases of Chicago, the descendants of patriarchs who put down impossibly small sums of money to start teams. George Halas not only organized the Bears but also sold tickets and played wide receiver. There are also the less scrappy but still venerable families like the Hunts of Kansas City and the Adamses of Tennessee, oil legacies both. More famous are late-comers Jerry Jones, Pat Bowlen, Paul Allen, Jerry Richardson, and Arthur Blank, who represent oil, oil, Microsoft, Hardees, and Home Depot, respectively. Each of these groups has different reasons for wanting to lockout the players, but all of them are to some extent motivated by the one team that has no single owner at all but is instead collectively operated by 111,968 of its fans: your world champion Green Bay Packers.
This latest Packers’ championship, the thirteenth, witnessed by an assembled audience of literally world-historical size, would seem a significant one for Wisconsin. And that we haven’t heard more about this triumph of collectively owned enterprise in the midst of two of the most visible labor struggles in a generation bears scrutiny. Dave Zirin has pointed out that FOX’s broadcast of the Super Bowl made no mention of Green Bay’s collective ownership. The station even went so far as to forgo shots of the Rooneys, owners of the opposing Steelers, to avoid begging the question. Given that the Super Bowl is usually an extended public celebration of the owners, this omission is remarkable. It is also, of course, entirely deliberate, part of the decades-long culture war still being fought with great vigor by the right. It is the reason it took so long for Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers to stand publicly with the Wisconsin unions. And it is the reason that keeps us from knowing—or caring—that Charles Woodson has been standing with them for a while now.
The owners made two central demands that prompted the lockout. The first was the expansion of the regular season from sixteen to eighteen games. The audacity is striking given that the one thing your average non-fan has heard recently about the game is that the players are killing themselves with concussions. Former player Dave Duerson recently shot himself in the chest, rather than in the head, so that his brain could be examined for evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a disease once thought to be found only in boxers. Articles exploring the connection between football and brain damage have circulated widely, with Malcom Gladwell going so far as to compare the sport to dogfighting. The league has responded to the bad press not by increasing health-care availability or improving helmet technology but by raising the fines levied against players for hard hits. Then the owners demanded two more games. It’s as though NASCAR reacted to the death of Dale Earnhardt by telling drivers to take it easy on the turns while increasing engine horsepower by 12 percent.
The owners’ second demand is less nakedly egregious but more interesting. Under the terms of the recently expired collective bargaining agreement, the players received about 59 percent of the NFL’s $9 billion plus in revenue, minus the first billion, which went to the owners for operating expenses. The owners now want to increase the initial cut to two billion. In response the players have asked for two things usually offered to anyone being asked to pay operating expenses: first, a look at the NFL’s books to see how the money is being spent, and, second, a stake in ownership. The owners refused both requests and the lockout commenced.
The first refusal, as Michael Felger has noted, is probably designed to keep hidden the extent of the nepotism at work in your average NFL franchise. With so many sons and daughters on staff, each holding multiple titles, it could very well be that any increase in operating expenses is due to various progeny receiving eight-figure salaries—a privilege for which the players are understandingly reluctant to pay more than they already have. In the refusal of collective ownership, as in the Fox Super Bowl broadcast, the issue is not up for discussion; uttering a phrase that would be equally at home in the mouth of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, NFL outside Counsel Bob Batterman flatly told the players’ association: “My clients aren’t interested in being partners with your guys.”
We have been trained in this country to equate the term public with being owned and operated by the state. The Green Bay Packers are not, in this sense, public. They are an independent, nonprofit corporation consisting of 111,968 shareholders holding 4.75 million shares. These shares have a set price of $200, pay no dividend, and cannot be resold except back to the club at a fraction of the price. No one is allowed to hold more than 200,000 shares, which have been offered for sale four times in the Packers’ ninety-one-year history, most recently to raise money for a renovation to Lambeau Field. Writing for Bloomberg News, Eben Novy-Williams reported that for “Banker Nicholas Bertha,” his share of the team is “By far my favorite security. . . . The team will never move, because it’s owned by the guy who runs the barber shop in Green Bay, the guy who runs the bar in Milwaukee, and me and my family.”
It is this kind of public—a universally available and voluntary association—that the league outlawed in 1961, when it stipulated that “No corporation, association, partnership or other entity not operated for profit nor any charitable organization or entity not presently a member of the league shall be eligible for membership.” The new rules demanded that each team be owned by at least one person with a minimum controlling interest of 30 percent. As the value of each team has risen, so has the height of this barrier to entry, which has recently become so high as to trigger a kind of succession crisis in Pittsburgh. There the problem was that no individual Rooney child had enough millions to buy out any of the others in order to create the necessary 30 percent share. Acting quickly to preserve one of its prized aristocracies, the league declared some owners more equal than others, allowing the combined 32 percent stake of the two Rooney boys to count as that of one individual.
When called upon to defend the ban on public ownership in 1994, the NFL argued in federal court that it would be “impaired if publicly owned teams were permitted, because the short-term dividend interests of a club’s shareholders would often conflict with the long-term interests of the league as a whole.” This assertion of conflicting interests between individual profit making and the long-term interests of the league certainly takes on a new meaning in light of recent events. In any case, and even ignoring the fact that the success of Green Bay puts the lie to any claims of competitive disadvantage, the focus on profitability is telling. The NFL is reserving the rights of ownership for a certain class of citizen, both now, by citing the dangers of casino capitalism, of all things, and rebuffing the players’ request for a stake in the game, and then, by outlawing the Green Bay model of public access to ownership. With the first case they stipulated that teams must be operated for profit, with the second, that the number of people who benefit from this profitability must be kept at an absolute minimum.
For this obvious restraint of trade the league needs and has needed the blessing of the federal government in the form of an exemption from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. First secured in 1966 on the occasion of the merger of the AFL and the NFL, the exemption was granted on the condition of Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s promise that teams would not relocate, the idea being that if owners had the right to move teams from city to city they could blackmail local constituencies for millions in public financing. This is, of course, exactly what they’ve done, again and again, in the forty-five years since, to the tune of about $7 billion in taxpayer dollars. It’s unclear whether this figure includes sums like the $36 million paid by the Municipality of San Diego to Alex Spanos, patriarch of the Chargers, for empty seats after the city was forced to guarantee him revenue equivalent to an attendance of 60,000. To put that number in perspective, $36 millon is a little over six times the amount Spanos donated to help reelect George W. Bush in 2004, putting him in the GOP’s top five. It is also roughly one-tenth the subsidy demanded by Spanos’s son, Dean, currently team president, to, again, prevent a move to Los Angeles and San Antonio. “I don’t know how many cities are going to be willing to put up $400 or $500 million,” San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said of a possible relocation in light of San Diego’s dire financial situation. “But I take every city as a credible threat.”
By these numbers the Chargers, and every other team enjoying a stadium built with tax dollars, is a great deal more public than the Green Bay Packers. But unlike Green Bay, these other publics have no say in the way their team is run. Though required to pay operating costs, they are disallowed a stake in ownership.
It has frequently been said that in this country we have socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. What the case of the NFL demonstrates so clearly is that what we have, in fact, is whatever the rich want whenever they want it. And whatever they want always gets the same name, free market capitalism, regardless. This has placed the left in the difficult and perverse position of defending or even attempting to restore a more democratic kind of capitalism. In the NFL’s case, after negotiations broke down, the Players’ Union voted to decertify, effectively busting itself to pursue litigation against the league for restraint of trade. The players determined the best course of collective action was recourse to their rights as individuals. In Wisconsin, signatures are being collected to organize a recall. In both cases the unions, hamstrung or temporarily dissolved, continue to exist, pursuing redress through other means. Both groups of workers seek a kind of economic citizenship denied to them, and the public will gain in rights should they succeed.
The NFL Players Association has been attempting to get the public’s attention by creating a television ad, “Let Us Play,” which the TV networks, ever anxious to appease their most profitable producers, have refused to run. And when I spoke with Georgia Pabst, a longtime reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, she emphasized the gap between multimillionaire professional athletes and your average Wisconsin schoolteacher. Solidarity is a hard case to make when so many high-profile players make so much money. It becomes easier, however, when we remember that the average career for an NFL player is three and a half years, and that most will be dealing with the effects for a lifetime. It’s easier still when we consider the many-billion-dollar supplementary economy of working men and women who sell the merch, serve the food, and take the parking tickets, and who will be unemployed come September, in the middle of the worst recession in seventy-five years.
Most convincing of all is the simple fact that, at the very least, the American people have paid $7 billion in operating expenses for the privilege to watch football in the fall, and have not complained about the rising ticket prices or the thoroughly oppressive advertising included in the increasingly bullshit bargain. Instead, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the game is more dangerous and more profitable than ever before, the owners have decided that it is still not dangerous or profitable enough, and they have shut it down rather than hear otherwise. Those behind Scott Walker and the others like him have made a similar determination about the rights of American citizens. Collective bargaining, like collective ownership before it, is an unacceptable check on the flow of public monies into fewer and fewer private hands. History needs a push and our clients aren’t interested in being partners with your guys. In other words, Fuck You.