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


 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.

Professional football in America gained popularity as a uniquely working class sport in which teams (think the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers) were named after regional manufacturing economies. These days, as ticket prices have risen to the tune of hundreds of dollars for a single game, the game has become an exaggerated expression of wealth in America when many fans are struggling financially.

Larry Solomon is a longtime community organizer and professor at San Francisco State University. He’s also a lifelong football fan, and has noticed that biggest enclaves of football fans are often in the most historically disenfranchised communities.

“They’re not cheering for the owners,” Salomon says of most fans. “They’re cheering for their cities, they’re cheering their friends and for people like them who identify around that team.”

For Salomon, that sort of ferver carries with it the potential for raising people’s political awareness. “When I go home and watch the Super Bowl with my family this weekend, I hope the NFLPA and the Indiana stuff comes up, but last year we talked about abortion during the Super Bowl because of Tim Tebow and his ad.

“You have these moments where sports intersects with politics, intersects with race, and you can have conversations with people who might not normally have those conversations.”

And this year is certainly one of those moments. 

“The Super Bowl is a staging ground for American Exceptionalism,” said Leonard, the professor at Washington State, noting that the Navy spends millions of dollars to do fly-overs before the game. “It’s a celebration and festival for the wealthy that’s done because of the labor of disproportionately men of color.”

That, Leonard suggests, is a macrocosm for how other industries work.

“Yes, the money is different and the stage is different, but that doesn’t mean that the lessons that we can learn aren’t there.”

Indeed, the 2011 NFL season was mired in political discussions from the start. It began with a protracted labor dispute between owners and players which lead to a lockout that lasted well into training camp. The NFLPA repeatedly emphasized how damaging a prolonged lockout could be not just to players and coaches, but also for the concession stand workers and ticket agents who work at the league’s stadiums and whose livelihoods often depend on fans showing up and spending money at games.

Another key issue that was brought up by players during the lockout is one with which many workers in other industries can relate: occupational safety.

While professional football is an admittedly physical sport and the allure of big hits has drawn in many fans over the years, the eventual price of that brutality has recently become apparent. New research has shown that players who suffer multiple concussions stand at far greater risk of developing severe depression and early onset dementia.

“I’m not sure players overall have really ‘gotten it’ with respect to the extent to which the money they make can be fleeting, but I think they’re beginning to get the idea that their health, their vibrancy can be fleeting,” said N. Jeremi Duru, a professor at Temple University and author of the forthcoming book “Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL.” He maintains that players’ increased awareness has made them more willing to protect their physically interests, and thus has created a climate in which their union’s support of other worker’s struggles isn’t all that surprising.

“The unanswered question is whether any of the players participating in the Super Bowl will say anything,” says Dave Zirin, a columnist at The Nation and author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love.” Though Zirin cautions that it’s not something fans should expect, he also thinks that if players do participate, the issue of worker’s rights in Indiana would get attention that’s “out of this stratosphere.” 

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