by Paul Knepper
For the past few weeks thousands of Wisconsin residents have swarmed the state Capitol in protest of a proposal by Governor Scott Walker which would require public employees to pay more for their health insurance and pensions, and severely diminish their ability to collectively bargain. The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) and individual members of sports teams in Wisconsin have issued press releases backing the protesters, but their support stops there.
During the 1960’s athletes like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Wilma Rudolph were at the forefront of social and political change in this country. Two of the most enduring political statements from that tumultuous period in American history came from athletes, when John Carlos and Tommy Smith raised their black fists on the medal stand and Muhammad Ali stated, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…They never called me nigger.”
Over the past quarter century player salaries and individual endorsement deals have skyrocketed, leaving athletes with a lot more to lose and reluctant to take a political stand. There are some current ballplayers who speak out for what they believe in, like Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and Hawks forward Etan Thomas but they’re few and far between, and you’d be hard pressed to find a superstar willing to take the lead on a political or social issue.
The prevailing political statement by a professional athlete of the past 25 years was Michael Jordan’s refusal to make any statement at all. When asked why he doesn’t support Democratic causes MJ replied, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
Given the current climate, at first glance it would appear unusual for the NFLPA and NBPA to publicly support the protesters in Wisconsin, but their motives are clear. Both parties are currently involved in heated negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement and face a potential lockout by their league’s owners. They’re trying to establish solidarity with laborers in an attempt to gain public support for their own clashes with management. Interestingly, the NHLPA and MLBPA – who aren’t embroiled in labor negotiations – haven’t issued an official press release on the subject. The lone statement on MLBPA’s website is from an individual, Craig Counsell, of the Milwaukee Brewers.
The statements issued by the NFLPA and NBPA are perfunctory in addition to self-serving. If the associations are truly concerned about the potential law in Wisconsin, they should be sending their members to Madison in droves. Their unwillingness to make a meaningful sacrifice for the protesters’ cause merely calls attention to the growing divide between athletes and other laborers in this country. Public employees are storming the Capitol while the wealthy ballplayers issue press releases.
The battle in Wisconsin, like any labor dispute is a dichotomy of “us verses them.” For the working man and woman, “us verses them” morphs into “the haves and the have-nots.” Today’s athletes are wealthy to a degree that public employees can’t relate to and they hide behind gated mansions and traveling entourages from the laborers they’re now trying to cozy up to.
To the average American, athletes are the “haves.” They’re the “them” in “us verses them.” It’s irrelevant that ballplayers are also laborers who have a legitimate gripe with ownership. Most Americans see the labor strife in the NBA and NFL as billionaires fighting millionaires over billions of dollars. If there’s a lockout in either sport the fans may blame one side more than the other, but ultimately they’ll be bitter towards both.
To an extent, Wisconsin residents are an exception. The Green Bay Packers are the last “small town team,” the lone community owned professional sports franchise in America, and their players do make an effort to embrace that community. For example, as part of a tradition dating back to the days of Vince Lombardi, the Packers ride to practice on the bicycles of local children during training camp. So when Charles Woodson and other Packers issued statements of support, it may have resonated with the protesters, but any public relations boost for the NFLPA failed to extend beyond the Wisconsin border.
The ironic thing about the chasm between fans and athletes is that athletes now have a greater ability to mobilize people and bring about social and political change than ever before. High salaries, the branding of individual athletes and a plethora of communication mediums provide them with a tremendous amount of power.
Some former athletes have called out today’s pros for not using that power to bring about positive change. Jim Brown has been particularly critical of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. While I agree that athletes have a unique opportunity to make a positive impact on society, I don’t believe Brown or anybody else has the right to tell another man how to spend his time or allocate his resources, regardless of his status.
I also recognize that great athletes like Jordan who come across as charismatic in commercials and rehearsed responses to simple interview questions don’t necessarily have the tools or the desire to lead a movement. In fact, based on the one time we heard MJ give a real speech (his Hall of Fame induction speech) evidence is to the contrary.
I’m not arguing that the NFLPA, NBPA or individual athletes have a responsibility to support the protesters in Wisconsin. I’m simply saying that if athletes want to be taken seriously as advocates for a cause and develop camaraderie with other advocates they need to be willing to make a significant sacrifice. If they’re sincerely interested in protecting the rights of laborers in Wisconsin, they should put their reputation on the line and join the demonstrators on the front line. Self-serving press releases are a nice gesture at best. They don’t bring about meaningful change or win hearts and minds.