Commentary

Caught in the NFL lockout trap

In good times, fans love the players they watch. So why aren't they on the union's side?

Originally Published: March 24, 2011
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

It's all fun and games until there is no more fun and games, when the jerseys with the numbers come secondary to the suits with the pocket squares, when playbooks yield to binders stuffed with legal briefs. At these moments, individuals become groups and sports is no longer a matter of home vs. visitor. Rather, sports transforms into four distinct constituencies: players, owners, fans and courts of law.

The fans, always fickle, unsure who from year to year is friend or foe, have issues with each of the other three.

They have a love-hate relationship with owners who rely on their loyalty, often without returning it in the form of relief from ticket, parking and concession increases. Yet fans still adopt a supplicant position in front of the owners, no different than the way in which most workers defer to their bosses. The owners control the teams. They set the salaries. They make the rules. You can't fight city hall.

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Mario Tama/Getty ImagesWhat are fans to think about the players, the owners and the outside forces that determine when the NFL will return to action?

Fans wrestle with the role of the courts -- are they heroes or meddlers? -- often spewing a populist outrage ("Doesn't the government have anything better to do?") while forgetting that the courts and the government (and not the leagues) created free agency for baseball players after 100 years, that the courts finally enforced even a cursory measure of accountability on the use of performance enhancers, that the courts (Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, then a federal district court judge, in particular) helped end the 1994-95 baseball strike, and that a court in the Reggie White case broke the NFL's ironclad prohibition against free agency, finally allowing for it nearly 20 years after baseball did. The "meddling" government on too many occasions has actually saved the game for the fan. Without the courts, players would still be bound to teams for life, would have nothing but memories for their broken bodies.

And again right now, it is the courts that have the best chance of holding the owners accountable during this current NFL lockout.

However, the most difficult of these issues is the fans' relationship with the players they watch. It is a complicated dance revealed most visibly during times of great crisis, such as this. The players often suffer the brunt of the fans' anger. Fans expect the players to be lesser businessmen, to be grateful rather than intellectual during negotiation. And the reason is that fans fall into the talent trap.

Maybe it's the money. At one point, players were closer to everyday people, at least in terms of salary. They were never equals, of course, but their kids went to public schools and ballplayers sold insurance or tended bar in the offseason, no different than a teacher. Today, the moon is closer to the working man than is LeBron James. Maybe it's jealousy, in that most fans play sports themselves up to a certain cutoff point, but eventually drop away from that participation while only the fingernail of the population that has the rare and raw ability to play games and get paid millions for it carry on.

Or maybe it's simply America , where we think the guy who signs the checks is more special than the guy who does the work.

Maybe it's all of the above and more.

But the great gap between fans and players -- the gap that breaks the relationship and often turns the player from hero to enemy -- is this: The players have so much talent that the everyday rules of society often do not apply to them, and there is a part of the everyday fan who simultaneously resents the advantages afforded by the athlete's wondrous talents (especially during the recent Great Recession) and spends years of his life transfixed by them.

Tony Adams
Bruce Dierdorff/Getty ImagesRemember this Vikings QB? Didn't think so. It's Tony Adams in a 1987 replacement game.

In this balance, the fan may appear jealous, but the players often instigate the acrimony by acting above the rules (see: Miguel "don't you know who I am?" Cabrera) or allowing society to exploit their talents (see: Derrick Rose, and countless NCAA test-taking scandals), in the end choosing golden entitlement without employing their own moral compass to determine right from wrong.

During work stoppages, fans burn at the players union's demand that ownership reveal its financials. Why, if I asked for a raise and demanded my employer show me the books, I'd be fired on the spot. Fans rage that players should be grateful they are fortunate enough to play a kid's game. The player suffers the fans' wrath because, despite his vertical leap or 40-yard dash time, at the end of the day he is still considered an employee instead of a business partner.

Talent is what changes the equation. Many people can file taxes, adjust claims or write about sports. Ultimately, those people lose leverage and lack power because they can be replaced.

On the other hand, there are very few (any?) people who can run like Michael Vick or play basketball like Kobe Bryant or pitch like Roy Halladay and persuade people to pay $200 for tickets, $50 to park and $10 for watery beer to watch their golden gifts. The immense talent of the athlete is what makes professional sports such an interesting industry. There are only a handful of businesses -- sports and the arts -- in which the employee generally has so much power, in which he or she is irreplaceable because of his or her talent.

That gives the players power. It makes them different, makes them something more than a mere employee, because the industry collapses without them. That makes them equal partners at the negotiating table. Brad Pitt earns $20 million per film because his talent is worth $1 billion to the people who make movies.

Hence, the "shut up and play" rhetoric doesn't work. They are not us. The fans don't just want to watch athletes. They want to watch world-class athletes. Division II football is still football, but few people watch it because it isn't world-class football. Those athletes aren't big enough. They don't hit hard enough. They don't run fast enough.

Fans want magic from the players, but they don't want the players to know they can make that magic. And yet, fans have proved they have a tipping point for those desires. They were vocal in opposition to the players during the NFL strike in 1987, yet they rejected the owners' effort to exploit their anger by using replacement players at the start of that season.

It didn't work, even though key players such as Randy White, Joe Montana and Mark Gastineau crossed the picket line and the networks undermined the players by broadcasting games played by the replacements. Nor did it work when Major League Baseball was preparing to start the 1995 season with replacement players after a work stoppage in August of '94 cost the game the rest of that season and the World Series.

[+] EnlargePackers fan
AP Photo/Mike RoemerThis Packers fan reacted to something he didn't like on the field a couple of years ago. Chances are, he'd welcome the chance to get mad like this again.

It is a curious dynamic, the fans and the players. Their talent has created tremendous fame and wealth for the players, but something equally important has been more elusive for them: respect. And it is here where fans employ an equally curious suspension of disbelief regarding the business of sports: The owners are not self-made, carrying baseball, the NFL, NBA or NHL on their selfless (or struggling) shoulders, but merely one more component of an industry that is as public as it is private. The overwhelming majority of the stadiums belong to you, the taxpayer -- and yet the cities and states that make you pay for the sports industry's infrastructure seem to have no say in the lockout.

The player's talent only has value because the fan will pay to watch it, and yet the player has little say in how the business end -- the television contracts that connect player to fan, for example -- is structured.

Fans over the years have demonstrated a willingness to pay for world-class sports entertainment -- the best athletes on the planet competing at the highest levels -- and yet fans don't seem to want players to exert their leverage, to recognize that their ability is their greatest commodity.

The fans love the players' ability during the good times and resent it during a work stoppage. But for all the anger, the last thing -- the new UFL and the possibility of the NFL employing replacement players again seem the next tests -- the American sports fan will accept is the UPS guy wearing a New England Patriots jersey and calling himself a ballplayer. The fans seem to still want the player to feel as though he just is an employee, beholden to the owners who in more than a century of professional sports have yet to prove that an American sports league can survive with anything less than world-class talent.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.

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