The American football season is in jeopardy as team owners and players wrangle over payby David Goldblatt / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
American football is the closest the modern world gets to the Coliseum, to sport as blood sacrifice. Its dominant imagery is martial and patriotic: in commentary, coaches are generals and it’s a game fought by war machines on battlefields. The Super Bowl is preceded by an air force flyby.
The NFL is a dangerous league to play in. No player escapes without serious injury at some point. The average professional career lasts just 3.6 years and footballers must have played three to qualify for post-career healthcare. They need it: NFL players have a significantly lower life expectancy than average. Laying one’s body on the line is no mere metaphor in American football. It is the harsh deal made by this workforce—one that is drawn from America’s poorest strata—who exchange their bodies for million-dollar contracts.
It is also, unusually for the US, a highly unionised workforce with the power to bargain collectively, resulting in an agreement that ensured 59 per cent of NFL revenues went to players. This contract has now expired. While the players are ready to continue playing under the old terms when the season begins again in September, 31 out of 32 NFL franchise owners have other ideas.
The Green Bay Packers, a community owned not-for-profit club and this year’s Super Bowl champions, are supporting the players. The other 31 teams in the NFL are owned by a cross-section of America’s super-rich. Despite a hugely successful year and a record television audience for the Super Bowl, the other 31 owners have now called an indefinite lockout and are ready to abandon the 2011 season altogether. Their demands are that a new labour contract needs to be drawn up with massive wage cuts for players and an extension of the season from 16 to 18 games.
The NFL has been planning for this, having had the foresight to agree a TV deal which guaranteed them $4.5bn this year whether there are any games or not. When you factor in the billions of dollars saved on players’ wages, it could be one of the most profitable years ever for the owners without a ball being kicked or thrown. For the duration of the lockout neither players nor their families have healthcare cover. Over 100,000 staff in the league’s stadiums and concession stands will suffer too.
Owner lockouts and player strikes in other sports—basketball in 1998-99 and ice hockey in 2004-05—have seen…