As the Kansas City Chiefs (and the rest of the NFL’s teams) take their traditional summer break before training camp, the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic continues to permeate every conversation about the coming season.
On Tuesday, incoming NFL Players Association president (and Cleveland Browns center) J.C. Tretter released a column that he said was intended to help NFLPA members “fend off criticism” about their careers. Organized as a set of talking points against “common narratives,” it provides a fascinating insight into what players are thinking as the league and their union continue to work out policies and procedures that will (hopefully) allow the NFL to safely play its full 2020 season amid a global pandemic.
“Playing in the NFL is a privilege, not a right.”
It’s neither. It’s your job. It is a highly sought-after job and a childhood dream, but it is a job, nonetheless. You worked your ass off to earn this job, and you have to continue to work your ass off to keep it. Do not allow anyone to undermine the work you put in day after day to earn a spot in this profession. The attempt to frame your occupation as a “privilege” is a way to make you feel like you should be happy with whatever you get versus exercising your right to fight for more protections and benefits.
When we see how much players at the very top of the league get paid to play in the NFL, it’s easy to think of them as privileged people who shouldn’t have a care in the world. But statistically speaking, of the 100,000 seniors who play high school football every year, just 0.2% — a little over 200 of them — will ever play in the NFL. Some of them will get that opportunity largely because they possess extraordinary physical gifts, but the vast majority will have to count on extremely hard work over a long period of time — and once in the league, they will face constant pressure from the next class of hungry, motivated athletes who strive to take their places.
“You should just play for the love of the game.”
I love what I do. I know a lot of my peers love what they do, too. There are people in all different professions who love what they do. Being passionate about your job shouldn’t prevent you from seeking better pay, benefits and work rules from your employer. Our careers are short and painful. Like every other worker, we should always work to maximize what we get for our services and realize our full value.
Because there are so many who have played football at the high school or college level simply because they loved it, it’s easy to believe that professional players should feel the same way. But certainly at the high school level — and in many cases at the college level — amateur players don’t have to provide for themselves. That isn’t the case in the pros, where players must provide not only for themselves but also for their growing families.
“Just go play! You’re young and healthy. You will all be fine. We need sports back.”
We are not invincible, and as recent reports have shown, we certainly aren’t immune to this virus. Underlying conditions like high BMI, asthma and sleep apnea are all associated with a higher risk of developing severe symptoms and complications when infected with COVID-19. Those conditions are widespread across the league. NFL players are humans — some with immuno-compromised family members or live-in elderly parents. Trust me: we want to play football. But as a union, our most important job is keep our players safe and alive. The NFLPA will fight for our most at-risk players and their families.
It’s easy to forget that NFL players are human — and that just like the rest of us, they need to be concerned about those around them. But here, Tretter doesn’t mention another group of individuals who will be taking risks while games are being played: coaches and support staff. Many of these individuals aren’t as young and healthy (or nearly as well-compensated) as those on the field, and will have no choice but to come into close contact with players.
“Athletes are overpaid! Why don’t our [teachers/nurses/first responders] get paid more?”
I hope every worker can maximize their talents and use their leverage to get paid more - especially essential workers. To be clear, though, there is no correlation between a football player’s paycheck and a nurse’s paycheck. As employees of NFL teams, we put a product on the field that brings in billions of dollars. The NFLPA collectively bargained for a percentage of that revenue. When the NFL and NFLPA split up billions of dollars, that leaves players in a position to make life-changing money. If less money was allocated to players, NFL owners would not turn around and gift the extra revenue to pay teachers, nurses, or other workers more money. The shaming of players (workers) to take less compensation will only further line the billionaire owners’ pockets.
Just about anyone is likely to agree that teachers, nurses and first responders (not to mention many other professions) should be better compensated in our society. But solving that problem is beyond the power of professional football players; it’s not their fault that our economic system can sometimes be tilted in ways that make no sense. Few would disagree it’s something our society could do better — but the solution probably doesn’t start with reduced NFL player salaries.
“I had to go back to work. You should have to go back, too.”
It is the responsibility of the employer to provide a safe work environment. I encourage all workers to hold their employers accountable to high standards. More so than any other sport, the game of football is the perfect storm for virus transmission. There are protections, both short and long term, that must be agreed upon before we can safely return to work. The NFLPA will be diligent as we demand that the NFL provide us the safest workplace possible.
I do not believe conversations about returning to work should be a race to the lowest common denominator among employees across different professions in different industries. We are all workers fighting for the same things: better pay, better benefits and better work rules. Our individual workplaces may be different, but we should support our fellow workers in pursuing gains instead of shaming them to come back to the pack. No worker should be complacent with their rights because they have what others outside their business deem “good enough.” Instead of racing to the bottom, let’s push each other to the top.
In the years I have been covering this sport, I am often surprised at how readily we (and I include myself in that “we”) fail to appreciate the unique perspective that professional athletes have. We often attempt to relate things such as what happens in a pro sports locker room to what occurs in our own workplaces... or see professional athletes monolithically — as if all of them make millions of dollars every year.
But in truth, little of what happens in an NFL locker room is anything like what occurs in the places where most of us work. And we shouldn’t compare the world of Aaron Rodgers to that of a 21-year-old rookie who makes $8,400 a week on Green Bay’s practice squad; that makes as little sense as comparing the reality of General Electric’s CEO to that of the person who cleans their office every night.
Still, it likely behooves us to remember that NFL players are human, too. By some combination of talent or ambition, they’ve achieved something few of us could even imagine — but like us, they still want the best for their families and their co-workers.
In the coming weeks, it might be good for all of us to remember that.