The Fans Aren’t Victims…Yet (and other misconceptions)

Both the owners and the players have taken a lot of heat for the lockout in the last few days, and deservedly so.  Both sides continue to spout half truths and spin a bad situation.  Stuck in the middle is the fans, and the media has made it clear that we are the real victims here. 

It’s just not true. 

This morning I’m going to address the biggest fan misconceptions about the NFL labor mess.  Good people have opinions on both sides of the issue.  Many of you disagree with my take on the labor situation, and I’ve enjoyed the debates.  There are points to be made in every direction. However, there are some common ideas out there about the nature of sports labor that are not useful. Much of what fans believe is irrelevant and distracts from the real issues.  These are not issues of fact (how much the owners offered or what benefits the players want), but rather ‘world view’ issues about how fans perceive the conflict.

Take whatever side you want, but just make sure you haven’t fallen into one of these traps first:

1.  Fans are the real losers in this lockout.

NO. Not yet, anyway.  To date, no fan has lost anything.  No games have been canceled. No games are likely to be canceled.  It’s entirely possible that they will, but we are still many months away from that. In fact, in about three or four weeks a court injunction could completely lift the lockout, and just like that football will be back, without any fan having lost ANYTHING at all.  The same ‘selfish players’ that scuttled talks in favor of court will then be ‘heroes’ who successfully guaranteed football in 2011 (unless the owners win on appeal).

Now, if come September we are stuck with empty tax-funded stadiums instead of NFL games, then yes, fans will be the losers, but for now, the rhetoric about fans ‘suffering’ needs to cool down. You haven’t been harmed or wronged in any way, so stop acting like a victim.  No one has lost anything.

2. Players have NO responsibility to care about fans.

Because fans don’t care about the players. Fans’ relationship, both emotionally and fiscally, is largely with the teams and owners. Sure, there are guys we care about.  There are a handful of about 10-15 players who actually matter to us, but for the most part, NFL players are interchangeable parts and most fans don’t care about them.  Pierre Garcon is a hero when he runs down Ed Reed, but when he drops a pass in the Super Bowl, he ‘sucks’.  Bob Sanders was a legend here, but some Colts’ fans are actively rooting for him to get hurt now that he plays for San Diego.  As Seinfeld said, we are rooting for laundry.

Fans who cry, “the players should have accepted the owners’ last deal rather than go to court!” because they ‘risked’ the season are being incredibly greedy and selfish (yes, EXACTLY like the owners and players).  Imagine someone came up to you and said, “Hi, I want you to take a big pay cut so that in six months I can watch TV”.  You’d laugh.  As fans, the only interest we have in these proceedings is that a deal is done.  Most of us do not care if the deal is fair. We just care if there will be football.  We beg for loyalty from men to whom we show none.  Other than a handful of stars, most of us aren’t loyal to players. We’d gladly have them play for peanuts if it guaranteed us football. 

Many fans don’t care enough about the players to bother studying the issues closely.  They just throw up their hands and say, “They are all greedy selfish fools!”.  The hypocrisy is amazing.

3.  Fans do not “pay players” salaries.

If I go to Wal-Mart and argue with the checkout clerk about a price, I wouldn’t say, “I pay your salary!” just because I buy groceries there.  It’s important that fans understand the relationship between owners, customers, and employees.  In a business, owners and customers have a relationship.  Owners are responsible to make sure the customer is satisfied and to encourage the customer to do repeat business.  Employees are responsible for carrying out the wishes of the owners under the terms of whatever work arrangement they have. 

While at work, the employee has to do his or her best to make the customer happy as an agent of the owner.  For this, they receive pay from the owner.  The customer has no right to dictate the terms of the work arrangement between the owner and employee.  None.  You don’t get to tell IBM how much to pay engineers or McDonald’s how much to pay fry cooks.  They negotiate those wages independent of you.  As long as the employee does his job and treats you well when he’s clocked in at work, you have no right to comment on what he gets paid or how it gets worked out. 

If Apple has a labor dispute and the new IPad 2 doesn’t meet its release date, no one throws up their hands and says, “But what about the fans? The fans are the real losers here! They love their new Ipads and now they won’t get to enjoy them.  Why is everyone so selfish for denying people their IPads!”.  No, a delay in the IPad means that people will likely choose another device on which to spend their money.  Apple’s inability to get a deal done hurts Apple, because consumers will make a different choice.  No one freaks out on the emplyoees, however.

Fans are customers of the NFL.  With the owners, we do have a financial justification for expressing our displeasure.  High ticket prices, sloppy play, bad shows, ect. are all complaints fans can rightfully level at the owners of NFL franchises.  I’ve learned that when I threaten employees with the line, “I’ll never shop here again!”; they honestly don’t care. Most of them are glad to be rid of me.  When I say that to management or ownership, it has weight.

The players are owners are courting fan sympathy for the same reason: pressure on the owners.  The players do not care what you think about them in this labor fight, and they are lying if they say they do.  They do care that fans are angry at the owners, however, because the threat of economic reprisal against the owners (fewer ticket sales, lower TV ratings) will hurt them where they are at. Owners know that as long as fans aren’t ‘mad at the laundry’, they’ll come back no matter how long the work stoppage is.  The average NFL career lasts just 3.5 years.  They can just wait out all the trouble makers…as long as the fans don’t get mad at them.

So in summary. Owners pay players salaries, not fans. Fans are customers of the owners.

4.  I could never tell my boss how to run his business!

A lot of fan complaints about the CBA mess are based on jealously.  Why should those players get to do what I don’t get to do!  I don’t get to tell my boss how much money I should make or how to spend her money. I don’t get to see my boss’s books! 

One of the biggest misconceptions about sports labor negotiations are that they bear ANY similarity to your job as a fan.  The following statements are true for the vast majority of Americans.

1. NFL players are way more talented at their jobs than you are at yours.

2. NFL players work much harder at their jobs than you do at yours.

3. NFL players are exposed to greater physical risk at their job than you are at yours.

Obviously, this isn’t true of everyone, but for the vast majority of people it is.  I know these facts are difficult to accept, but the sooner we wrap our minds around them, the better. Drawing any comparison between whatever you do and the life of an NFL player is ridiculous.  You can’t tell your boss how to run his business because you aren’t that important and if your boss fired you today, he’d just replace you with someone else.  That’s why you have no leverage, you are just one man or woman.  If you were a highly skilled worker with irreplaceable skills who was collectively bargaining with other similar workers doing a dangerous, highly lucrative job, then you’d probably get to make a lot of demands on ownership.  That’s the way it works.  

I realize that makes it hard to identify with anyone in this mess. I don’t blame people who get bored, tune out and don’t have a dog in the fight.  That’s a reasonable response to a clash between people whose lives are so very different from yours. As long as you don’t start complaining about how selfish everyone else is and how the players don’t care about you, tuning out is a reasonable way to go.

5. I’m a small-businessman, and I hate seeing employees rule the roost.

I understand the mind of the small-businessman, having lived with one most of my life.  The small-businessman or woman likes to be in charge.  Nothing is more frustrating than employees who won’t shut up and do what they are told.  The labor strife in the NFL rankles many business owners because they put themselves in the position of the owners. 

Most business owners I’ve known are decent people. They pay fair wages.  They work to take care of their employees as best they can. They probably don’t have more than a handful of people working for them, so they know every one of them by name.  They know their familes and situations. Most are better and more responsible people than their employees are. So when they see NFL owners and their family owned companies, they see themselves. They can’t help but empathize with questions of profitability and the rising cost of labor. The plight of the owners makes sense to them.

In most small-businesses, the boss is the talent.  If you own a small business, it’s built on your blood, sweat and tears. If you weren’t there, the whole thing would fall apart. It’s your knoweldge and skill that keeps it running.  YOU are the real commodity. In the NFL, the real commodity is the player. It’s the employee who adds the value, not the boss.  You could put any one of a thousand rich dudes in suits in the front office, and the business would still make money. It’s the players that are special, not the owners.  That’s why the players deserve to be paid so well.  LIke you, they are the talent.

What most of them don’t realize is that NFL owners are NOT small-businessmen. They are ultra-rich captains of industry with a very different value set and relationship with their employees. They have already broken faith with players on the TV deals, and frankly should not be trusted.  They aren’t all bad men, but some of them are, and those are the ones who have been setting policy for the league for the last several years.  In conflicts, we identify with the people most like ourselves.  Many think of the owners as similar to themselves, but they could not be more different.  The fact is that the player making $500,000 a year has a lot more in common in terms of social class with the typical business owner than the actual owners of NFL teams do.  Some of them seem like down-to-earth decent dudes, with whom you could grab a beer, but that’s not the norm

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