Bryant Gumbel’s remark at the close of his show ‘Real Sports,’ last week, has generated a good deal of discussion. Gumbel sneered:
"Before he cleans out his office…Have Paul Tagliabue show you where he keeps Gene Upshaw's leash. By making the docile head of the players union his personal pet, your predecessor has kept the peace without giving players the kind of guarantees other pros take for granted. Try to make sure no one competent ever replaces Upshaw on your watch."
I think it’s fair to say that the sports commentariat is not generally sympathetic to professional sports unions. The most obvious reason for this is that players make so much money and the insistent cant about players’ excessive salaries and greed has been one of the three or four central themes of sports commentary over the past two decades. Consequently, the very idea that millionaire athletes need, or deserve, an advocate seems absurd on its face. This is a change, no doubt. America was once a densely unionized country, with more than a third of its non-government workforce belonging to unions into the 1960s. That figure has been steadily declining for forty years, and stands at little more than 10% today. De-industrialization, and the rise of the service sector, not to mention a quite clear and deliberate attack on unionization have been primarily responsible for that change. Had there been sports unions of any consequence in 1965, my guess is that there would have been somewhat more sympathy for them then, from both the average fan and the-then often blue collar reporters (my, how that’s changed) who covered the games.
In any event, Gumbel’s remark seems to have touched a nerve for a number of reasons. One is the racially sensitive nature of the remark – the idea of a white overlord/master keeping a Black man on a leash has, to put it mildly, explosive connotations, even in 21st century America. Two, Football is King, and the merest suggestion that the NFL might have problems, or might have achieved its success on the strength of a woefully one-sided set of labor relations is just not what football’s very loud supporters necessarily want to hear. Three, Gumbel has stirred the pot before, including with his widely-attacked comments this year about the “boring” lily-white (and not as in snow) nature of the Winter Olympics. And, four, becauseGumbel is supposed to be the play-by-play announcer for eight games this coming season on the NFL Network, the league-run 24-hour a day football channel.
Outgoing commissioner Paul Tagliabue took immediate offense:
"I think the thing Bryant Gumbel said about Gene Upshaw and the owners is as uninformed as anything I've ever heard in a long, long time and quite inexcusable, because they are subjects about which he should be better informed."
Tagliabue also warned that Gumbel’s job with NFL Network may need to be reconsidered:
"Having looked at how other people have had buyer's remorse when they took positions, I guess [it] suggests to me maybe he's having remorse…You call into his question his desire to do the job and to do it in the way the NFL would expect it to be done."
Despite Tagliabue’s protestations, The New York Daily News’ Bob Raissman (http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/story/444483p-374331c.html), who wrote about Gumbel’s remarks immediately after they first aired, suggested that while Tagliabue might not appreciate Gumbel’s sentiments, NFL Network chief Steve Bornstein might feel differently:
“And while Gumbel's HBO commentary may not sit well with some NFL powers that be, it had to make Bornstein smile. His network is not only in a desperate battle for recognition, but a high-stakes war with cable operators such as Time Warner and Cablevision that have refused to carry NFLN.”
In fact, Raissman pointed, Bornstein had said back in April, when Gumbel was first hired, that Gumbel would not be expected to be a traditional voice or to use a staid, traditional approach in covering the NFL.
In less widely publicized comments made on the same show, Gumbel, in fact, attacked the league more generally in his advice to new commissioner Roger Goodell:
"Making the NFL fit Dick Cheney's demeanor can't serve you well in the long run…Yeah, football is a business, but it's also a game. Legislating individuality out of the NFL may have been Paul's thing, but it need not be yours."
And, in an apparently unintended embodiment of Gumbel’s criticism’s of the players union, NFL Players Association President Troy Vincent criticized Gumbel for “inappropriate” and “irresponsible” remarks:
“"He's entitled to speak his mind . . . and he felt that was his forum to do so…But I just thought the timing of things, there's too many good things going on -- we just announced a new commissioner -- in our sport to have these kind of blemishes."
But, while most of the coverage has focused on the war of words between Gumbel and Tagliabue, yesterday’s “Morning Mojo” - a morning drive time talk show on sports radio 620 in Durham- used the controversy to explore the actual substance of Gumbel’s remarks and did so in a way that was, for sports radio, a surprisingly sympathetic discussion of the situation of professional football players. Joe Ovious gave Gumbel credit for having “some fortitude, some sack” for attacking the one-sided nature of labor relations in the NFL. Co-host Morgan Patrick chimed in that “everyone knows there’s no protection” for the players, due to the lack of guaranteed contracts, and that teams treat players as if “they’re pieces of meat…a team discards you onto the trash heap.”
As the Morning Mojo crew noted, the football union was, for all intents and purposes, broken after the ill-fated 1987 strike that ended when the owners used replacement players for three games and several high-profile players then crossed the picket line to play.
It is generally true that the balance between owners and players unions is inherently tilted for one simple reason – you can be a billionaire owner for decades, but the window for playing at athletic peak is much smaller.
And, this truth is far starker for football players than for any other sport, where the average career is somewhere in the neighborhood of three years and has been shrinking steadily since the 1970 merger.
But, the bigger problem for the union and for the sports’ collective conscience, if you will, is the toll that playing football takes on the human body. Several studies have found a shocking increase in mortality for ex-football players compared to the population as a whole. For example, a 1994 study by the National Institute for Occupational and Safety Hazard found that ex-NFL lineman had a 52% greater likelihood of mortality than the population as a whole, with most of the increased risk due to cardio-vascular illness (and, unsurprisingly, the incidence was higher for Black than White players).
Furthermore, as Gregory Moore (http://www.blackathlete.net/artman/publish/article_01876.shtml)detailed recently over at blackathlete.net, the union has done a horrendous job of looking after its retired veterans, 325 of whom receive a monthly payment of $150 or less and have recently been further shortchanged by an arcane rules change involving withdrawing money against social security, a change that many of the ex-players didn’t understand and to which Upshaw has been notoriously unsympathetic. But, this isn’t merely an intra-player squabble. It’s part of a larger pattern: playing in the NFL destroys bodies, causing early mortality, chronic arthritis and a (dramatically shortened) lifetime of pain and discomfort.
A USA Today study in 2002 (http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2002-01-31-football-medicine.htm), looked at the state of sports medicine in pro football.Among its notable nuggets:
“If you asked 200 former NFL players about their health 20 years after their retirement, every one likely would report "crippling" arthritis in some joints from those injuries, estimates former Seattle Seahawks team physician Pierce Scranton Jr. Even without the traumatic injuries caused by 250-pound men plowing into each other at speeds approaching 25 mph, the simple wear and tear of the game ruins the players' joints, he says. And two years ago, a survey of 1,090 former NFL players found that 60% had suffered at least one concussion. Those men reported more problems with memory, concentration and headaches than other players.”
And, as Moore points out, some more recent, and more well-heeled ex-NFL Players have decried the treatment of the older players and the failure of the union to adequately advocate for them:
“Former All Pro defensive lineman and current Fox Sports analyst Howie
Long said in a recent interview for the Charlotte Observer, "When I went
to the Hall of Fame in 2000 and was inducted, it was a travesty the kind of
carnage I saw out of these guys who were in their 50s and 60s, who had defined
and in many ways laid the foundation for the NFL being what it is today.
Joe Montana was quoted as saying, "The NFL is the worst represented league, on the players' side, in pro sports"”
An in-depth study of NFL injury reports over several years was carried out by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review (http://pittsburghlive.com/x/tribunereview/news/specialreports/specialnfl/s_291033.html
) in 2005, demonstrating the special dangers facing pro football players compared with other professional athletes. And, counting on the league, in the absence of a strong, countervailing force, like a union, to make the game safer, might be tilting at windmills:
“…critics contend the NFL makes too many reforms reactively Despite years of warnings about the risk of heat stroke at summer training camps, the NFL didn't institute leaguewide dehydration guidelines until after the Minnesota Vikings All-Pro tackle died from thirst.
Rather than make reforms after a tragedy, players want the clubs to take a more comprehensive look at injury stats, basing future rules changes on the latest science. They say they're counting on the NFL and its owners to "do the right thing."
"Football is a team sport. Players often assume the team will do the right thing for them. That's something they learned at the college level. You're part of the team, and the college and the coaches and everyone else will be there for you. And then you get to the professional level and they have to learn about the way things are really done there," said Trace Armstrong, an All-Pro defensive end for the Bears, Raiders and Dolphins who went on to lead the players union before retiring last year.
He's slowly recovering from 15 years of ruptured tendons, bashed ribs, torn knees and a bad shoulder. But he realizes the scars of the game will travel with him for the rest of his life, and he can count them, sort of, on his fingers. His hands are so mangled "only one of my fingers works the way God intended them to."
George Will once joked that when it came to baseball, he was a full proponent of Marx’ Labor theory of value – that is, he argued, the players were entirely responsible for the creation of wealth generated by baseball and should be compensated accordingly. This is certainly as true for football, with the added proviso that the game devastates many of its participants long after they retire. The unmistakable beneficiaries are the owners. But, though many players make tremendous salaries, many more don’t, and the failure of the union to make sure that those individuals are reasonably well-taken care upon retirement is a signal failing.
There is no major sport in which the players sacrifice so much for the entertainment benefit of the fans and for the obscene material benefit of the owners.
Both the NFL’s bottom line and its integrity would benefit from keeping Gumbel’s voice on-air at NFL Network. As for the NFL players union, to paraphrase Gandhi, I think it would be a good idea.