Sporting Solidarities: The Pro-Union Potential of ESPN

The controversy in Wisconsin over anti-union legislation has riveted observers for weeks. The attempt by Wisconsin Democrats to avoid a vote on said legislation by absconding to neighboring Illinois drew guffaws, indignation, and resignation from various political corners. The subsequent vote forced by Republican Governor Scott Walker may have transformed the proposed bills into law but legal experts have been amassing in the Midwestern capital of cheese and beer to unhinge GOP dreams of a union free Madison.

The “Wisconsin 14” returned to Madison on Friday to both praise and condemnation. New York Times journalist A.G. Sulzberger noted that for some Sconnies the 14 state senators had become “the unlikeliest of folk heroes.” Of course, Republican officials rejected such idealizations as Governor Walker labeled the same elected officials “the most shameful 14 people in the state of Wisconsin.” Predictably, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka denounced the Governor: “Scott Walker and his Republican tools in Wisconsin showed just how far they’re willing to go to pay back their corporate donors.” For Trumka, Walker’s act served to reignite both a stagnant labor movement and energize progressives that have shrunk in the face of tea partying Americans. Trumka exclaimed, “Thank you, Scott Walker. We should have invited him here today to receive the Mobilizer of the Year award!” However, with ever diminishing membership and a national public expressing a fundamental ambivalence about unions, the truth of Trumka’s revelations remains unclear. While the comments section on websites serve as the 21st century equivalent of writing on the bathroom wall, many internet denizens disagreed vociferously with the union leader.

Having been a union member for nearly all of my adult life (2 years a union for grocery store workers, 9 years as a NYC public high school teacher in the United Federation of Teachers, and for the past three years, a UAW teaching assistant) and having a brother-in-law who works as a labor lawyer for the AFL-CIO means I am probably not a neutral observer. Yet I can understand the public’s reticence over union labor. With fewer and fewer people as rank and file members, the kind of union connections Americans once had under the Fordist model (1950s -1970s) simply do not exist. Moreover, as the private sector has reduced benefits, outsourced, and generally found cheaper ways to produce products or provide services, fewer workers expect the kind of benefits union membership has traditionally bestowed. Even worse, in moments, unions have been their own worst enemies. Teachers’ unions have sometimes opposed meaningful school reform in the name of protecting teacher’s rights. No doubt this has been necessary on a number of occasions, but at times, organizations like the UFT have taken approaches that alienate other workers and retard real improvements for urban school systems. This is not to say the UFT is bad or should be eliminated, just that in the push and pull that occurs between institutional actors and their rank and file, no one entity will be right all the time. The elimination of collective bargaining serves as one example of overreach. After all, even the business oriented Economist argued that while it agreed with other aspects of Governor Walker’s platform, his attack on collective bargaining went “too far.” (“Showdown in Madison,” Economist, Feb 26, 2011)

As fate would have it, just as the Wisconsin turmoil reached its peak, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and owners announced that they had been unable to come to an agreement over a new collective bargaining agreement. The NFLPA officially decertified on Friday (March 11,2011) when talks broke down and are now pursuing an anti-trust lawsuit against the owners for locking out players, a move that would have been impossible had the union remained in place. What’s at stake? According to the New York Times and other sources, roughly nine billion dollars annually.

The last time the NFL endured a work stoppage was in 1987, a time when the league lacked the economic and social capital that it has today. In 1987, scabs or replacement players took the field in place of their professional counterparts. Some performed well enough to remain in the league but most played a couple games and returned to their day jobs. Today, the NFL has ascended to the heights of American sportsdom. The appeal of fantasy sports, the decline in popularity of baseball, and the enormity of the Superbowl, as an event enjoyed even by non-fans, has helped make American football the nation’s national pastime. Players salaries have also improved enormously since 1987 as have owner’s profits.

While the NFLPA had been satisfied with the collective bargaining agreement as negotiated previously, in 2008 owners decided to opt out of the agreement, which meant a new one had to negotiated by the end of the 2010 season. Owners claim operating costs have increased, thus they want to add an “extra billion dollars to their immediate revenues to cover” these increased expenses. This means the players would then get 60% of the remaining 7 billion. As part of this new structure, the owners hope to add two more games to the schedule, making the NFL season 18 games rather than 16. Over the past month, some progress was made as the owners reduced the original billion dollar give back to about half, agreed to guaranteed contracts for more than one year, and promised not to institute an 18 game season without union approval. However, when the players union demanded that the owners show them their books for the past decade to confirm rising operating costs, the owners balked. When the players union walked out, the owners and some NFL officials reacted rather negatively. Jeff Pash, the NFL’s chief labor negotiator spoke to ESPN minutes after talks broke down and clearly leveled blame with the player’s arguing that they entered negotiations with one commitment, “to litigate”. Moderate and often quite New York Giants owner John Mara came out swinging as well. Mara bemoaned the fact that, in his eyes, the union had not changed its “position on the core economic issues . . . one iota. Their position has quite literally been ‘take it or leave it,’ and in effect they have been at the same position since last September.” NFLPA counsel Jim Quinn speaking to reporters denounced Pash’s statement. According to Quinn, Pash had “lied to them about what happened today and what’s happened over the last two weeks and the last two years.”

So what’s different about this stalemate from the one in Wisconsin. First, one must acknowledge NFL players and public sectors union members do not exist on equal terms. Teaching and other public sector professions, though vital to the running of our nation, are jobs within reach of most Americans. Reaching the NFL is not. Second, the kind of salary NFL players are negotiating for obviously exceeds the kind of renumeration that any teacher enjoys. Brothers and sisters in arms? Probably not. Third, NFL players have a key advantage that teacher’s unions and the like do not, a media outlet known as ESPN.

In 1987, ESPN existed but not with the reach or cultural cache it enjoys today. The worldwide leader in sports has come to be the main source for most sports fans in terms of not only sporting events or television sport news, but also in its ever expanding media empire. Bloggers like Bill Simmons, sports pundits like Michael Wllbon and Tony Kornheiser (hosts of the wildly popular show Pardon the Interruption or PTI), and writers like Gregg Easterbrook command audiences of millions. Sportscenter, ESPN’s popular sports highlight show, occupies a central place in American culture. Undoubtedly, ESPN exerts a cultural influence that pervades American society and in many ways crafts narratives. One need only look to the recent 30 for 30 film series in which 30 filmmakers crafted 30 documentaries on various sports related events and individuals over the past three decades of ESPN’s existence. However, ESPN’s rise has brought with it problems of legitimacy. After all, when you provide sports for fans you must also negotiate contracts with owners and leagues. Who does ESPN represent here?

The ESPN balancing act must be difficult to maintain. In the immediate meltdown on Friday, the sports network spoke with allegedly neutral observers like sports law expert Roger Cossack or past negotiator Andrew Brandt to breakdown the terms that each side could and could not agree on while also tracing for fans the possible trajectory of the conflict over the next few months. Yet, as ESPN has grown so has its stable of ex NFL coaches and players. Today, ESPN shows and sports commentary feature countless ex professional athletes. What will be there role via ESPN in the lockout? For example, on Friday during a Sportscenter segment, former New England Patriot defensive standout Teddy Bruschi came out clearly on the side of players. While his ESPN counterpart played devil’s advocate, offering up the logic of owners in response, it is hard to imagine his viewpoint outweighted Bruschi’s passion and charisma. Having established a media voice, one wonders if the sports network might provide a platform for individuals like Bruschi to pursue NFLPA interests. Considering the general media bias against unions, the NFLPA seems to have a unique means to disseminate its message. If ESPN has become the arbiter of sports narratives, might this prove decisive in gaining public opinion? Granted, ESPN reporters and employees have long debated the networks new role as sports behemoth. Some suggest the network sometimes abandons its principles to assuage the various professional sports leagues it televises. For example, when an original series about professional football players titled Playmakers ran afoul of NFL officials for a plot line that seemed to highlight domestic abuse, ESPN immediately canceled the series. So one should not be too Pollyannish about ESPN’s intentions — it is a corporate network after all.

Still, one of its most popular writers, the aforementioned Bill Simmons (who is NOT an ex player) came out two weeks ago with a column that squarely placed the blame on the owners, more or less blaming them for overt greed. In a recent podcast, he wondered aloud whether or not fans could place faith in Commissioner Roger Goodell suggesting that it remained to be seen whether or not Goodell was little more than the owners’ puppet. Say what you want about Simmons, and there is plenty of critique to go around, but his blog and podcast reach a lot of eyes and ears.

One can assume that many fans will simply fall back on a “pox on both houses” approach in which millionaire players and billionaire owners prove reliable targets of derision and resentment. Still, as the lockout went to federal court numerous commentators noted that the issue boiled down to trust, which as has been the fundamental reasons for union organizing for decades. The owners believe the players want to litigate rather then negotiate. Operating costs, owners claim, have bitten seriously into profits. Considering the league’s growth, players find this hard to believe, so they demand to see the books in order to confirm owners’ claims. The fact that a federal court recently banned owners from using the 4 billion dollars in TV revenue they had socked away to survive the lockout did little for trust between the two groups. In the end, NFLPA executive director Demaurice Smith pointed out that it came down to basic business sense. When entering any agreement business partners agree to vet all financial aspects. According to Smith, over the past two weeks “the National Football League has said, ‘Trust us.‘ But when it came time for verification, they told us it was none of our business.”

In the middle of a recession the site of any workers protesting might rankle some observers, let alone professional athletes. Certainly, the sight of millionaires suing the NFL in federal court under anti-trust law will draw harsh criticism from some. However, if current and former players working for ESPN along with organization’s various writers can articulate a vision of the lockout that somehow supports organized labor, wouldn’t that be a net positive? Public sector unions have to work through the “filter” of various news agency interests. While the return of the Wisconsin 14 drew both applause and tomatoes, one can imagine the sheer joy the return of football for the 2011-2012 season would bring to nearly all football fans. If the ESPN could be harnessed to promote a message that if not pro-union at least refuses to demonize organized labor, is it possible that could trickle down to other aspects of life? Maybe it is a reach, but if the NFL lockout doesn’t accomplish this, the NBA has its own work stoppage on the horizon. Who knows — maybe a bunch of millionaires can help out some working stiffs.

Ryan Reft