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How the Super Bowl Became the Center of a Political Showdown for Players and Workers

The NFL’s Players Association, the union that represents the league’s athletes, has come out in opposition to Indiana's proposed Right to Work legislation.
 
 
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 Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was not supposed to be among this year’s Super Bowl story lines. This year’s contenders, the New England Patriots and the New York Giants, should instead be taking center stage. Yet less than a week before America’s biggest sporting event of the year kicks off in Indianapolis, Gov. Daniels’  fight with the state’s unionized workers over legislation that could curtail the power of their collective bargaining rights has given a new national platform to the right wing’s bitter, decades-old war against unions.

Yet the NFL’s Player’s Association, which is the union that represents the league’s athletes, has also jumped onto the national stage and come out in opposition to the proposed Right to Work legislation. In doing so, the league’s union is taking an important, albeit symbolic, step to publicly bridge the gap that exists between the NFL’s multibillion dollar teams and its increasingly marginalized fan base. And it’s proof that sports is a powerful cultural art form that can help elevate some of today’s most controversial political issues.

On January 6, 2012, the NFLPA released a damning letter in opposition to the Indiana’s bill, which has since moved quickly through the state’s legislature.

“‘Right-to-work’ is a political ploy designed to destroy basic workers’ rights. It’s not about jobs or rights, and it’s the wrong priority for Indiana,” the  statement read. “It is important to keep in mind the plight of the average Indiana worker and not let them get lost in the ceremony and spectacle” of the Super Bowl.

The statement was hugely important, considering what’s at stake for Indiana’s workers, particularly black ones. Black workers are  disproportionately union members. They’re  more likely than whites, Asians, and Latinos to be in public-unions, and make up 15 percent of total membership,  according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Historically, unions have been crucial gateways for black workers to earn higher wages and break into the middle class.

While supporters of Right to Work argue that the laws are needed to foster a “pro-business” atmosphere that helps generate desperately needed jobs, research has shown that the laws can have disastrous effects on workers. The Economic Policy Institute  released a report in January showing that workers employed in Right to Work states makes less money and are less likely to be offered health care.

DeMaurice F. Smith, executive director of the player’s union, pressed the point even further in an op-ed published a week later in one of Indiana’s  most widely read newspapers. ” An indisputable lesson of our American history is that none of those workplace protections came as a gift from corporations,” wrote Smith, who’d previously made a name for him self as a hard-nosed litigator. “Rather, all of them resulted from the ability of workers to stand united and demand change when it would have been easy to fire or silence the voice of a single worker.”

There are currently 22 states in the country that have the law, mostly in the South and in western states like Wyoming and Utah. Indiana’s bill, which the state Senate passed this week and Gov. Daniels has already vowed to sign into law, is unique because it will be the first the law that’s been put into action in an industrialized area with a large, unionized workforce.

“I don’t think it was surprising, but I think it’s important,” said Washington State University professor David Leonard about the NFLPA’s statement.

And for some observers, the reason why it’s important is because there’s been an growing divide between the league and its average fans, many of whom are people of color.