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Rethinking Work: sports as labor

Last week, the New Orleans Saints, long NFL football’s worst team, won the Super Bowl. A city cheered, and people from around the country whose teams were knocked out earlier in the season joined them. Former New Orleanians, like me, remembered our love for a town that could be beaten but not broken, and broke out our black and gold. I painted my toenails gold and drank Abita beer and screamed at the TV like a wild thing when Tracy Porter snatched Peyton Manning’s pass and danced down the field for a touchdown.

Commentators trumpeted the Saints’ victory as a comeback for the city of New Orleans. That’s not true—the city is still in dire need of help and its mayoral election, held the day before the Super Bowl, saw voter turnout of only 45 percent in a city that has excellent reason to be despairing of government. But as Dave Zirin noted at The Nation:

As Saints linebacker Scott Fujita’s wife Jaclyn said, “The people of New Orleans love the Saints not because they provide a distraction from their fall but because they are a reflection of their rise.”

Whether you believe that or not, the proof is in the very vibe of the city. The French Quarter is hopping tonight. The Ninth Ward is hopping tonight. Algiers is hopping tonight. People in New Orleans are feeling damn good right now, and to scoff at that is to scoff at the very resiliency that makes us human. …Even if tomorrow is unbearably hard, we have today. And today feels mighty fine.

Sports are competitive, of course, but they also bring people together. Team sports, yes, but even individual sports bring together a group of fans united for a moment if only to cheer their beloved players. Strangers hug each other after victories. Anna Clark noted at Bitch:

Cities cohere around their sports teams. You see this in the language: “We won on Sunday,” or “We have to find a new second-basemen for next season.” That “we” speaks of collective self-identification … and it is something special and rare.

Sports produce superstars, it’s true, and we’ve seen the spectacularly bad behavior (as well as rather average bad behavior) that unquestioned hero-worship creates aplenty this year (I won’t name names). A very few athletes make millions upon millions, and are tracked by the paparazzi as they splash that money around. But as our own Erik Loomis noted to me in email:

These guys are America’s gladiators. A few are stars, but a lot sacrifice themselves in relative anonymity and risk long-term harm. A high salary is the least they deserve, particularly given the wealth of the owners.

The same fans who glory and identify with their beloved athletes when they bring home championships often have no sympathy for their labor struggles. Over and over again, the work stoppage in the NHL, for example, back in 2004-05, is referred to as “a strike” and people tell me that they can’t watch the game anymore because a bunch of rich players demanded more money. I’ve had to patiently describe the difference between a lockout—ultra-rich owners preventing the players from playing—and a strike, in which workers refuse to work unless conditions are met.

Public sympathy turns against players when they’re not on the field—Peyton Manning may be called the greatest of all time when he’s winning playoff games, but if the NFL sees a similar work stoppage this year, all sympathy will probably be gone because his estimated $14 million-a-year salary will be the headline instead. (Never mind the estimated $1.1 billion net worth of team owner Jim Irsay).

Sure, pro athletes make a lot of money to play a game. But the superstar salaries are misleading. The median NFL salary is more like $770,000, which is still a lot of money in a nation with a median household income of under $50,000. It’s nothing compared to the salary and bonuses of Wall Street CEOs, of course.

But these are games that take an intense toll on the bodies of the people who play them. Though many pro athletes come out of college sports, the setup of college athletics mean that few of them really come away from their education with a degree in anything other than playing that sport. Many of them come from working-class backgrounds, and their salaries immediately go not only to supporting themselves but to supporting their families—and the tendency is to live well on the money while they’re making it, not put it away for the long years post-stardom, when maybe one or two will become commentators and the rest fade from public view.

For most sports, then, we have a hierarchy with a few superstars who are household names, who rake in cash by the handful and never have to worry about working again. Zirin notes:

The real story of how the beauty of play developed into a trillion dollar business can only be understood by looking at the profound economic changes that took place as this country transitioned from a farming society to the military and economic colossus it is today.

Our culture commodified sports, which at least in themselves are based on meritocracy and direct competition, turning them into a product to be sold by those with money to those with little money. The joy we get out of sports, after all, isn’t the same pleasure you get from buying a commodity, even a work of art. It’s a joy of identification—the only comparable pleasure is a musical performance. But that’s being sold to us now—buy the T-shirt with the superstar’s name on the back instead.

glory at last - but always at a price

Even the athletes that make a lot of money are treated like only so many commodities to be shuffled around. Players are traded at the whim of the owners, management, and coach, shipped from a city that they’ve called home to someplace perhaps across the country. Team bonds are yanked apart, and you may end up facing your friend across a faceoff and in the locker room with someone who injured you a month earlier. A million-dollar salary could make this worth it, I suppose, but it’s a bitter irony that the sports that bring us together as a community seem at times determined to destroy that community in pursuit of a bottom line.

At bottom, the labor struggles of high-paid professional athletes are the same as any other group of workers: a constant fight to make their conditions livable, to ensure their support should the worst happen, and a balancing act between the interests of those who put their bodies on the line and those who sit in a fancy office yet are assumed to have a right to profit off those bodies. It’s just that there’s a lot more money at stake.

Sports provide a way for humans to give vent to our competitive urges in at least somewhat safer a venue—if you’ve watched a boxing or mixed martial arts event, you’ve probably seen two athletes try to take each other’s head off for several minutes, and then embrace when the fight is over. They provide a point for us to rally around, a space for that collective joy that is so often lacking.

Anna Clark wrote:

But typically, without any words–rather, told through the language of movement–sports tell stories that deepen our understanding of human potential. Sports are a variation of the art of improvisational theater. Sports are art.

The very fact that they are a game is part of the beauty of sports. They exist to provide something bigger than everyday existence. They are also, in a very real sense, very serious work.

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