Commentary

NFL players lose ground in labor debate

Updated: March 23, 2011, 12:06 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

This week in "As the NFL Labor Negotiations Turn," a player will refer to an owner as a "stupid-head," and, in response, commissioner Roger Goodell will stick out his tongue, fold his arms and stomp away.

I'm being facetious, of course, but it just feels as though things have gotten that petty between the NFLPA and the owners. It's as if both parties are on the playground and any moment they'll resort to insulting one another's mothers.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Kent Nishimura/Getty ImagesAdrian Peterson's comments did not move the labor discussions forward.

The sniping is to be expected during a labor negotiation of this magnitude, but the players have lost ground in recent days with childish retorts.

You would think the players would be in a position of strength in terms of public perception because they have more avenues than ever to get their message across to the fans. They have social media, traditional media, particularly the television networks.

But the downside is that there are also more opportunities for the players to screw up and undermine their unified message. And the players seem determined to do exactly that.

Adrian Peterson recently compared the situation NFL players are in to "modern-day slavery." And not long after those comments, Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall chimed in on Twitter in support of Peterson, saying: "@AdrianPeterson is correct in his analogy of this game. It is a lot deeper than most people understand. Anyone with knowledge of the slave trade and the NFL could say that these two parallel each other."

Obviously it was hyperbole, unless I missed the part where NFL players were snatched from Africa, transported across the sea in inhumane conditions, then forced into unpaid servitude, with all of that going on for hundreds of years.

And not all NFL players were pleased with Peterson's statements. Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant strongly rebuked Peterson. Grant tweeted: "… actually still slavery existing in our world … Literal modern day slavery … That was a very misinformed statement."

The players have every right to speak out about unfair conditions, but in terms of a strong and unified negotiating stance, not everyone is qualified to comment publicly.

For the record, I'm on the players' side. Peterson's analogy was awkward and ignorant, but I get that he was likely thinking about how the average former NFL player's life span is 52 years old, how some players can barely walk after retiring in the NFL and how disposable some of them can be in such a violent game.

As a journalist, I'm responsible for sorting through the rubble. But a lot of fans aren't going to take time to decode the rhetoric, thoroughly immerse themselves in the key issues or dismiss inappropriate comparisons to historical atrocities.

[+] EnlargeRyan Grant
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireRyan Grant served as the voice of reason.

They want football, not letter-writing campaigns.

The fans won't easily forget that a Vikings running back NFL player set to make $10.7 million this year compared his situation to slavery, or that the players are also pressuring incoming rookies to boycott the NFL draft, an event die-hard fans love to watch.

Although ESPN's poll on the labor dispute shows that most fans support the players, other polls have indicated that public support is unpredictable at best. CNBC's current NFL labor poll shows that 48 percent are on the owners' side and 36 percent on the players'. (Online polls are non-scientific and can skew, depending on who votes.)

The NFLPA came into these labor negotiations with an opportunity to be the outright winner in the battle of public perception.

But the players have lost their leverage. Even worse, they have wasted their chance to find some common ground with many of their fans.

Although we're technically not in a recession, the mood across the country is that these are still tight times.

Regardless of industry, most of us have been affected by America's economic turbulence in some way. We know friends and family members who have been laid off or accepted buyouts. Some of us are working for companies that have downsized -- or plan to. It's almost a given now that workers must bear greater responsibility for their health care and other benefits. America's unemployment rate is 9 percent, and far too many people are living in cities where the economic crunch hasn't eased up.

So if there ever was a period when the average American might feel some kinship with NFL players fighting for equitable treatment, it's now.

Only fans aren't going to sympathize with players they perceive to be thoughtless. As it is, the players were already at a disadvantage because it's easy for fans to make them the target of their disapproval. The game is marketed based on the incredible athletic plays and charisma of the players, not their franchises' less-recognizable owners.

NFL players need to wage a smarter fight for public support. Because the fans they alienate today will be the same people they'll need to support them once football officially resumes.

Now isn't the time for the players to be stupid-heads.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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