Commentary

Debating NFL player-solidarity gesture

Updated: September 14, 2010, 3:19 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor and Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

Thursday night's fingers-in-the-air demonstration by the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings got commentary regulars Jeff MacGregor and Jemele Hill into some good old-fashioned back-and-forth about the NFL's upcoming labor impasse. Here's their e-mail debate.

Jeff MacGregor, Friday

I woke Friday morning to find two new things in the world: the phrase "NFL solidarity" being used as something other than a punch line, and my colleague Jemele Hill beset by her own followers in a running Twitter battle over what that meant.

[+] EnlargeCleveland Browns
AP Photo/Brian BlancoBrowns players joined in the show of solidarity before their game Sunday.

All of which ruckus was raised at Thursday's Minnesota-New Orleans game. In a show of unity and defiance at a possible owners' lockout in 2011, players from both teams took the field that night with index fingers raised. As I write this, it remains to be seen whether that gesture will catch on with other NFL players. We'll know Sunday. We'll also know a little better whether American football fans are going to side with the millionaires or the billionaires in the coming labor unpleasantness. As Jemele's Twitter stream proved, sympathy for either group is in short supply in our current terrifying economy.

Mike Golic condemned the Fraternal Finger on his radio show, saying it drew the wrong kind of attention from fans (presumably by reminding them how much players earn). Here's Jemele's Twitter feed unfolding at that very moment:

• Very provocative back n forth going on @MikeandMike btwn @marcelluswiley & Golic on the solidarity players showed b4 last nite's NO-MINN gm
• Last nt, NO-MINN players held up index finger to symbolize their togetherness during labor negotiations.
• A huge % of Americans support unions, yet quickly tell the players to shut up & accept the conditions. Huh?
• Fans complain abt salaries, but buy jerseys, Direct TV pkgs, tickets, etc. If you hate the $ they make, stop creating the market!
• I don't care if you make fries or lay-ups, $ = respect. Some of y'all will complain abt a 3 % raise.
• OK, lemme stop blowing up ppl's timelines. Y'all got my 'pressure up before noon!

A near infarction! First thing!

So, Jemele, a very hot topic indeed.

I'll start here by asking why you were defending the players. Then, like a shark -- or Skip Bayless during Shark Week -- I'll circle back to lunge without thinking at the parts of your arguments that smell fishy.

Hope this finds you well.

Jemele Hill, Friday

Before I expose my own fangs in this debate, allow me to decode my own Twitter lingo/slang. "'Pressure" means my blood pressure, which, by the way, is still slightly north because of the numerous replies I received after my slew of rants. The gist of it: No one wants to hear wealthy athletes complain. Why didn't the Saints and Vikings know that when they raised their fingers, it was an insult to the unemployed auto workers in Detroit or those who have had their homes foreclosed on?

Look, there is no better pastime than hating on wealthy folks, but the backlash the Saints and Vikings have received says something ugly about not only how we view freedom of expression but also the underlying contempt we have for today's athletes. Since when did your ability to stand up and express yourself become directly related to your paycheck?

It's not as if the players raised fingers in the air while sitting in their Bentleys. I thought we liked it when athletes showed they believed in something that wasn't superficial.

Oops, but I forgot the fine print. We want athletes to have a voice only when they utter something we all agree with; that makes us comfortable.

Otherwise, sit down, shut up and entertain us!

Jeff MacGregor, Friday night

When I saw your Twitter feed blow up, I thought three things:

[+] EnlargeThe Great Gatsby
Scribner PublishingFact or fiction? Unions, including the NFLPA, still play an important role in our society.

First, coming from Detroit as you do, I thought you'd be surprised and disappointed by the number of Americans who no longer support unions in practice or in principle. As a general matter, according to Gallup, in 2009 only about 48 percent of Americans "approve" of unions. That's an abysmal, all-time low (although the numbers rebounded a bit this year). And it may explain why only 12.3 percent of the American work force are union members. As recently as 1983, that number was more than 20 percent. This despite the labor movement's undeniable contribution to the economic success of this country and the creation of its middle class. So our respect and affection for collective bargaining have run pretty thin.

And sympathy of any kind is going to be a tough sell when you're talking about a union that protects the bargaining rights of "millionaires." (And frankly does a poor job of it.) Which is my second point. Selling this to the public, to the fans, has to be a delicate thing. That's why the index finger is a bad idea. Looks too much like "We're No. 1!" So it looks like a sports cliché built on brag and ego. Want unity? The fist is a historic symbol of the strength of the collective -- but the Tommie Smith/John Carlos fists would scare the owners and the networks and the advertisers and the ticket holders to death. Is there a better, smarter campaign to be devised?

Lastly, this: I think the idea that $ = respect is everything that's ever been wrong with this republic. Dead genius alcoholic F. Scott Fitzgerald backs me on this, since undoing that equation is the premise of our national novel, "The Great Gatsby." But if not Gatsby, how about Albert Haynesworth? $100 million hasn't bought him a lick of respect from anyone this summer. Do a sit-up, my friend. Run a lap. Simple.

Jemele Hill, Friday night/Saturday

You pulled the Gatsby and Fitzgerald cards? I thought this was a sports debate, not an English lit class. But if that's the way you want to do things, I'll quote that world-renowned philosopher Stu from "The Hangover," whose sarcastic words perfectly characterize the Haynesworth situation.

"You mean the drug dealer … wasn't a good guy?"

To wit: You mean a perennially out-of-shape, selectively productive defensive tackle with attitude issues wasn't a sound $100 million investment?

But I'm glad you brought Haynesworth into this conversation because it helps me make a few points. Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder created that market for Haynesworth just as the fans created the market for the NFL. If the fans think professional athletes are overpaid, if they can no longer tolerate the sight of these whiny millionaires, stop patronizing them. Stop buying their jerseys. Stop buying their gym shoes. Stop buying their video games.

[+] EnlargeUAW Boss
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioUnited Auto Workers president Bob King, center, took over a smaller, less influential union this summer.

Besides, it strikes me as extremely self-righteous that some fans are pulling the bad-economy card on the players, yet many of them are purchasing tickets to games and paying top-dollar to watch the NFL in high definition on DirecTV. Go ahead and complain about a raised finger from your 50-yard-line seats.

Fans just don't want to admit that although they love sports, they harbor an unhealthy resentment toward the athletes who play the game.

Most of us will never be able to throw a 50-yard touchdown, run the 40-yard dash in 4.2 seconds or sink a putt to win the Masters, so we live vicariously through athletes. Only our connection to sports is so emotional, it often blinds us to the business realities.

Most athletes love the game they play, but they understand it's a job. Most fans, however, do not.

Jeff, how many times have you revealed your profession to someone and his immediate response is: "Wow, you're so lucky! You get to write about sports"?

In spectators' minds, when journalists cover a game live, we're sitting there in the stands with hot dogs and beer.

It's the same way for NFL players. And although the financial rewards may be bigger than most professions in this country, the principles of employment remain the same. You want to be paid what you're worth. You want to be respected. You want your employer to be fair.

You're right that because I'm from Detroit I grew up with a deep and healthy respect for unions. I'm not surprised Americans have less faith in unions than ever because, well, look at the unemployment rate.

Still, unions were created to protect workers from preying employers, and the NFLPA isn't any different. This new collective bargaining agreement isn't just about money, but it's also about safety for the players, pensions and health care.

Those are universal themes every worker should understand.

Jeff MacGregor, Sunday morning

I'm still not buying the idea that $ = respect in the NFL or out of it. If money bought respect, Donald Trump wouldn't be a punch line.

Respect = respect. It's a calculus of character.

(When George Steinbrenner died this year, there was a quote in the newspaper from one of his employees. "He made everyone around him money," this fella said, making The Great American Mistake. Which would you rather have carved on your tombstone, "He made everyone around him money," or "He made everyone around him better"?)

Money's just a way for the thoughtless and the careless to keep score.

And as a card-carrying member of four unions in my adult lifetime, I'll say this about the NFLPA's sudden solidarity and about union rolls in post-Reagan America: Ain't it a stitch that when times are fat and easy, everyone from foundrymen to congresswomen to football stars claim their success was an individual matter of genius and struggle and bootstraps? But that when times are tight and life is hard and the economy falls apart, suddenly maybe we all need to pull together for a change? Suddenly we're all One Big Team? Suddenly Brett Favre is all up in my Walt Whitman and contains multitudes?

Ain't that a stitch?

Maybe a little more solidarity in the good times makes everything better for everybody at all times.

Jemele Hill, Monday

And maybe we shouldn't be so quick to judge people just because they make more money than we do.

I know most fans will never identify with NFL players financially, but they should respect -- there's that word again -- the players' desire to campaign for better conditions.

It is human nature to want a better lot in life. Besides, let's not pretend that NFL players live a perfect existence.

They are involved in a dangerous game. They live with the fear that any hit could paralyze them and know that continually punishing their bodies might lead to a painful postfootball life. Haven't they earned the right to raise a finger?

Editors, Tuesday

We have to ask as this debate winds down, tongue planted firmly in cheek, which finger? (Perhaps further symbolic gestures will be a topic of future debate.)

Where do you, the reader, stand? Do your feelings about unions color your feelings about the players' stance? Does any of the talk and posturing even matter if there will be games to watch next fall?

Players at six games Sunday repeated the gesture of solidarity. We'll undoubtedly hear plenty more before negotiations end between the NFLPA and owners.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow @MacGregorESPN on Twitter.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com. Follow @jemelehill on Twitter.

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