We are in the midst of the 30th anniversary of the 1987 NFL strike, a good reminder of how weak organized labor has been in professional football for a long time.
The strike lasted about a month, and while it was a power move for players to walk out in the middle of the season, as they had five years earlier, management in the NFL only canceled one week of games. They returned in Week 4 of the season with scabs – the 2000 Keanu Reeves/Gene Hackman comedy “The Replacements” is truer to life than you might realize – and by Week 7, the strike was over.
The NFLPA’s weakness, a hallmark of the organization ever since, was shown by the scores of players, including Hall of Famers like Joe Montana, Tony Dorsett, Lawrence Taylor, and Steve Largent, who crossed the picket line. Largent, as it happens, went on to become a four-term Republican congressman, and once co-sponsored a Lindsey Graham bill to exempt funeral directors and embalmers from federal minimum wage and overtime laws.
It is because the NFLPA has never gotten its act together that players in America’s most popular sport do not have guaranteed contracts. The union has been routinely clobbered at the bargaining table, and isn’t helped in its public image by constantly having to take up the case of horrible human beings, as seen this week when Cowboys running back/domestic abuser Ezekiel Elliott had his injunction against a six-game suspension thrown out by an appellate court. That left the NFLPA to make a statement saying, “The appellate court decision focuses on the jurisdictional issues. The failures of due process by the NFL articulated in the district court’s decision were not addressed.” These guys can’t even figure out when it’s just best to take the L and move on.
With all this in mind, it was heartening this week to see organized labor come out with a strong, if largely symbolic, show of support for Cowboys players after owner Jerry Jones’ proclamation that players who use the national anthem as a vehicle for protest will be benched. Jones, naturally, earned presidential kudos, but also a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board.
The NLRB filing did not come from the NFLPA, but rather Local 100 of the United Labor Unions. Their chief organizer, Wade Rathke, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “We are trying to send Mr. Jones a message that there is a law here. The law here is that you have the ability to act with your co-worker. You can’t just roll over someone’s rights when they are a worker. You can’t bully workers on the job. President Trump might not get that. Jones might be confused. But these are workers with rights with the National Labor Relations Board.”
That was last Tuesday. On Wednesday, the NFLPA followed up in a big way, issuing a joint statement with the NFL that read: “Commissioner Roger Goodell reached out to NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith today and both he and player leadership will attend the league meetings next week. There has been no change in the current policy regarding the anthem. The agenda will be a continuation of how to make progress on the important social issues that players have vocalized. Everyone who is part of our NFL community has a tremendous respect for our country, our flag, our anthem and our military, and we are coming together to deal with these issues in a civil and constructive way.”
The way that the statement is framed tells you everything you need to know. The protests have nothing to do with the flag or the military, and when it comes to “important social issues,” what exactly is the NFL going to do to work toward greater accountability for police officers who kill without consequence? “How to make progress” is really, “how can we get everyone standing for the anthem?” and the union is telegraphing its acquiescence, in accordance with its organizational history of capitulation.
Thirty years ago, players went against the union during a strike. It will be interesting to see, when and if the NFLPA buckles on this issue, whether players are willing to do so again, this time in the name of ending systemic racism and upholding the Constitution, rather than just to go get a check.