Disrespect of NFL players by Texans’ Bob McNair and other owners isn’t new
The attitude of some in the league is that players are pawns, not partners
Houston Texans owner Bob McNair’s demeaning quote was a favor to a new generation of NFL players.
It taught them a piercing lesson that we all learn, eventually — that in the eyes of NFL leadership, individual players are viewed as commodities to be exploited for financial gain. Though the racial aspect of McNair’s unfortunate analogy is undeniable, focusing on it alone is to disregard the history of the league’s relationship with players and to misunderstand the ongoing fight players have waged since the league’s earliest days: the fight for respect.
The owners may respect players’ athletic ability, but they have never respected us as partners, which is what the players’ value should warrant. But the players don’t get that type of respect, no matter how great they have been.
Drew Brees, who told me he has a good relationship with New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, said, “For the league to prosper, the owners must respect us like partners, but they don’t and they never have.” Brees and I watched at collective bargaining agreement discussions in 2011 when Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson spoke to then-35-year-old, 13-year veteran Peyton Manning like he was a teenager. Richardson, himself a former player, called Manning “son” and asked if he needed to explain a mortgage to him because Manning didn’t readily accept the absurd claim that the league had fallen upon financial hard times.
McNair apologized and claimed he never meant to offend anyone, and I believe him. It is also possible that Richardson was genuinely offering help, not being sarcastically condescending to Manning. But even when you remove the intent to offend, the lack of respect for a legitimate partner remains. Richardson and the league wouldn’t have attempted to present an obvious fallacy to a respected partner. And even if we are willing to ignore McNair comparing the players to criminals, his perception of players as a subordinate class is obvious.
That perception that players are inferior is ingrained in the culture of sports, so much so that removing players’ free agency through the draft and trades seems normal. And the idea that players would make any demands is offensive to NFL brass. In 1987, when players demanded free agency, a basic right afforded all labor, then-Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm called the players “cattle” who could be easily replaced. The players went on to strike for much of that season. Eventually, some star players began to cross the picket lines before the league granted the players any control over their own careers.
In the early 1990s, the players went after some respect and free agency again. Rather than giving them this basic level of respect, the NFL coerced star quarterbacks to join the NFL’s Quarterback Club, sowing division among the players. The Quarterback Club was built to sell the licensing rights of a select few, the most marketable players. Ironically, many of the star quarterbacks who joined the club stood to benefit the most from free agency. But by joining the club, they weakened the players’ bargaining leverage. The NFL offered six-figure checks to players who joined the Quarterback Club, which was much more than they would get from the union, which used some of the licensing profits to run the union and distributed the rest evenly to all active players.
Surprisingly, Boomer Esiason, one of the strongest players during the 1987 strike, joined the Quarterback Club. Non-club members were angered by guys like Esiason. But after a failed strike, taking the money that was offered probably seemed like a prudent decision. Esiason didn’t appreciate it when Jeffrey Kessler, a union lawyer, challenged his decision to join the Quarterback Club. Esiason asked him if he wanted to settle it outside. Fortunately for Kessler, offensive lineman Mike Kenn, the NFL Players Association’s president, was there to defuse the situation.
In 1992, the players won an antitrust case and finally got free agency. They continued to negotiate for more benefits through the ’90s and 2000s. But the league’s words and actions have never shown the players the level of respect befitting a partner.
Headed into the 2011 lockout, the league negotiated a TV rights deal that would pay the teams in the event of a lockout but not pay the players. They colluded to impose a salary cap in the 2010 season, which was supposed to be an uncapped season. That season was meant to act as a deterrent to a lockout or strike. The thinking was the players would be motivated to get a deal done before the 2010 season because they would lose access to negotiated benefits. And the owners wouldn’t want to remove the cost controls from having a salary cap. The players endured the benefitless season, while the owners dodged an uncapped season. Even now, the league denies players access to a neutral arbitrator and continues to impose discipline based on whims and not evidence for minor issues such as Deflategate and serious issues such as domestic violence.
Commissioner Roger Goodell and his employers continue to behave this way toward players for one reason: because the players allow it. Before this season, players might have underestimated their power relative to the owners, given that the owners have far more money, connections and experience. But power has only one root: collective action. Money, connections and experience are but tools to facilitate collective action. This season, the players have seen the impact that a motivated fraction of their population can have. Goodell and the owners should be careful not to motivate the rest.