Any day now, the NFL’s owners and players will reunite with hugs and handshakes, insist all this was business and not personal, raise their hands together in victory and celebrate the start of football season.
Training camps will eventually open, the regular season should begin on time and we’ll all get our Sunday rituals back without really feeling like they were ever missing.
If and when it happens, the owners and players will have figured out how to split a wildly successful business model that prints money to the tune of billions and billions of dollars every year. That thought makes guys like Michael O’Connor and Jack Hefner chuckle.
Hefner is the president of United Steelworkers Local 2. O’Connor is the former president of the United Steelworkers Local 7. Both have led multiple strikes and work stoppages for fair wage and labor rights.
O’Connor led a six-month strike in the 1970s over wages and later directed a grueling 30-month labor dispute with Firestone that included a six-month strike and two years working without a contract. Hefner has led strikes at Goodyear centered on wages and benefits.
The men they represent make, at best, around $50,000. The NFL minimum salary is more than $300,000.
Both men are big sports fans — O’Connor used to have season tickets to the Indians, before skyrocketing prices shoved him out of the gates. Both have followed the labor disputes in the NBA and the NFL with interest and sometimes are amazed at what they hear.
“I don’t really know if there’s any way of knowing how loyal each player is to the other,” O’Connor said. “Does that $20 million wide receiver really give a crap about the left tackle? In the factory union, we’re in this for everybody. We all end up making the same money per classification and receive the same benefits. It’s all the same. But in the NFL, NBA or baseball, there’s always somebody getting more.”
O’Connor laughs at the NFL rites of summer, when inevitably a handful of guys under contract for a few more years will hold out of training camp for a better deal “because someone else is making $10 more than I am.”
“It’s hard to decipher from all the news media if it’s the players who want too much or the owners who want too much. Who’s speaking for the consumer?” O’Connor asked. “We’re concerned about the consumer. We’re concerned about making quality and the guy next to us making quality products. We understand our livelihood is based on that, but I don’t think they look at it the same way, that their livelihood as a football player depends on having a league.”
Fans always return
Players and owners alike don’t have to worry about that because the fans will come back. They always do. Major League Baseball was financially wounded for a few years after its strike in 1994, and the NBA was hit with low attendance figures following its work stoppage in 1999. But eventually, both sports enjoyed record-setting figures again.
The steroid era brought the fans back to baseball, and the NBA is coming off one of its highest-rated seasons. The NFL remains America’s most popular sport by a wide margin.
“They have a captive audience,” Hefner said. “That makes it a lot different than Goodyear going on strike. Somebody can go read a different newspaper or go buy a different tire, but it’s a little different with the NFL.”
John Russo has heard all of these arguments before and disagrees with most of them. Russo is a professor of labor studies at Youngstown State, and he doesn’t believe it’s fair to compare the NFL and NBA labor unions to those of working-class companies.
“You’re comparing apples and oranges. The career of a football player is about three years, the career of a basketball player is not terribly longer,” Russo said. “They’re obviously concerned with making as much money as they can in that short period of time. Football is a really dangerous occupation and they’re both in the entertainment industry.”
Gene Upshaw, former executive director of the NFL’s Players Association, spoke at Youngstown State about 20 years ago, Russo said. Upshaw spoke about pensions and health-care issues and the length of careers, and that was before much was even known about the long-term damage of football.
“A lot of those guys are abused. The level of arthritis and various types of injuries to the knees, ankles and kidneys is pretty strong. There are a lot of health and safety issues and we’re just now learning about the dangers of concussions,” Russo said. “Are those valid comparisons [to working-class unions]? No, it’s not. It’s done more for political purposes and to put public pressure on these athletes so we can watch them on Sundays. A lot of the negotiations have become PR campaigns. It’s not necessarily about the basics of bargaining and the issues involved.”
O’Connor’s brother has season tickets to the Browns. Hefner considers himself a sports fan for life.
Regardless of how the league treats the fans between now and a new agreement, both men will be back. So will everyone else.
“I’ll be a Browns fan until they throw the dirt on me. I guess that shows how stupid I am,” Hefner said. “I don’t think they could ever do anything that would make us let go.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ.