Union activists blasted Barack Obama for reneging on his campaign promise to put on some comfortable shoes and walk the picket line in Wisconsin during the debate over the budget-reform bill in February. Does he own a pair of comfortable cleats instead? In an unintentionally hilarious column at Politico, ESPN journalist Kevin Blackistone argues that Obama’s failure to take the side of NFL players in the current lockout betrays unions everywhere, invoking Martin Luther King, Jr to make his point, such as it is:
Obama may have made a politically astute move by not picking a side in pro football’s offseason showdown. But it smacked of disingenuousness after he criticized as “an assault on unions” Walker’s proposal to strip public-sector employees of collective-bargaining rights. The NFL owners’ fight against the league’s proletariat, regardless of the players’ wealth or the public’s perception of it, differs very little from the Wisconsin battle.
The NFL fight is a serious attack on unions. In mid-March, team owners locked out the players, who decertified their union to challenge the league’s antitrust protection. The players then filed a court complaint to recoup more than $4 billion in TV revenue they claimed the league “left on the table” during recent contract negotiations. …
So, to riff on a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., not to stand up for unions everywhere is a threat to unions everywhere. And unions seem to be under siege across the country now.
I’d be tempted to consider this satire if the publication was The Onion rather than Politico, and the writer wasn’t so obviously earnest about the subject matter. Did Martin Luther King, Jr march to get equal treatment under the law and organizing rights for millionaires? It’s indisputable that football players (and other professional athletes) were far more exploited before King’s assassination than they are today, and yet I don’t recall a March on Canton to demand that players be freed from the very oppressive reserve clause in baseball or from a lack of equity in revenue sharing in the NFL. Frankly, I doubt that was high up on King’s priority list.
Blackistone seems to be unaware of the hyperbolic irony of this argument, too:
“If you look at the average salary [of an NFL player] for the first four years, it’s well below $1 million,” Ruettgers pointed out. “Plus, every year there’re about 300 new retirees — or I should say unemployed, because most don’t retire willingly.”
Horrors! Why, it’s an absolute embarrassment that the average salary for a 26-year-old in the NFL comes in somewhere below twenty times the average annual household income in the United States (around $50,000 per year). And how awful that some football players don’t perform well enough to guarantee their continued employment in this industry! I never knew that the NFL didn’t have a no-cut policy. How awful that this national industry terminates a whole 300 people a year, too. Why, it’s enough to rock the national economy to its foundations.
Barack Obama wisely chose to stay out of the NFL impasse for good reasons. First, it’s none of the government’s business; the NFL is a private enterprise in a free-market economy, and hardly an essential service as might be argued for the transportation industry, to use an example. Second, despite Blackistone’s contentions, the public doesn’t see NFL players as an oppressed class of laborers. Most men would give their eyeteeth to have played in the NFL, and the salaries of players dwarf those of most of their fans. The owners generate even less sympathy, true, but that doesn’t make the players the darlings of those who are mostly priced out of ticket-buying for the games they play at stadiums that taxpayers usually end up subsidizing.
If the players and owners can’t figure out how to slice up a multibillion-dollar revenue stream in a manner that keeps the money flowing in 2011, a presidential nudge in one direction or another isn’t going to help matters anyway. It may have escaped Blackistone’s notice at ESPN, but we have more important issues for the government at the moment than whether billionaires and millionaires can get along together.