Outside the Lines this morning featured a profile of Dennis Byrd. Byrd was a very good defensive end for the Jets who, in his fourth year in the NFL in 1992, suffered a broken neck following a collision with a teammate in a November game against the Chiefs.
Three months later, he hobbled to a podium after a grueling rehabilitation regimen. But, Byrd has lived with daily pain ever since. That pain is often excruciating, affecting his thighs, back and hands, and he walks with a severe hobble. Byrd has a quite extraordinary attitude and appreciation for what that injury has taught him – about his wife, his kids, his newly cultivated talents (he’s a sculptor and a high school football coach). But, his reality is, as he puts it, a “prison” in which pain features as a constant.
I know I’ve discussed the physical toll that football takes on its competitors. But, to put this in some context, one of the reasons why owners’ dishonesty about their finances, and the discourse surrounding labor-management negotiations in sports bothers me so much is that the risk-equation here is so one-sided. It’s the players, not the owners, who are sacrificing their bodies. It’s the players, not the owners who, in football especially, but to lesser degrees in other sports, risk the possibility of a lifetime of pain and discomfort. In this light, I find it frankly sickening that anyone would ever draw an equivalency between what the players are asking for and what the owners are asking for.
I understand where this anti-player bias in discussions of contracts and sports business comes from: it’s the athletes, not the owners, with whom we identify (or want to). It’s the athletes whose circumstances most fans want to relate to. And, given these realities, it’s the athletes who are the focus of fans’ ire. After all, how could a pro athlete, making millions of dollars ever complain about anything, with gorgeous women throwing themselves at him all because he gets to play a game he loves? Millions would kill to be able to do what the professional athlete does and, it often appears, takes for granted. And, from chicken-processing to meat-packing, there are groups of workers in this country toiling for a pittance, often sacrificing life and limb while their bosses reap huge profits. I get that.
But, comparing professional athletes to other workers is not the proper context for reporting on and analyzing labor-management disputes in sports. The question is simply who is more deserving of the spoils to be divided between players and owners: the players, or the owners? All you have to do is see Dennis Byrd hobbling painfully through his life fourteen years after his last game to answer that question. There is no more spoiled or coddled group in America than owners of major sports franchises: already impossibly wealthy, they insist on every edge, every break, to guarantee their profits, all while telling their players, the only ones making real sacrifices and taking real risks that they, the players, should be grateful for what they have.
If an ordinary Joe wants to tell a Jeremy Shockey or a Kevin Brown or a Terrell Owens that they should just shut up and play – fine. But, coming from a sports owner: no dice. They’re simply not in a credible position to make such judgments. And, sports media ought not to write as if they are.