Discover more from JoeWrote
Damar Hamlin, NFL Players as Workers, & Fan Solidarity.
NFL players are exploited by their bosses. Fans can help.
Welcome! I’m happy to announce the new JoeWrote referral program. By referring friends to JoeWrote, you’ll get free premium access while helping me reach new readers. Plus, your friends will thank you for introducing them to something new. It’s a win, win, win.
Click the button below to get started.
On January 2nd, America saw what is usually hidden from primitive television — contact sports kill, and football is no exception.
As soon as 24-year-old Damar Hamlin collapsed during the Monday Night Football Bills-Bengals game, it was clear this was no normal injury. A routine tackle caused his heart to stop, requiring nearly 10 minutes of CPR to save his life. And while it is widely and quietly understood that American football causes life-altering injuries, most notably the degenerative brain condition CTE, seldom is the issue of player health and safety contemplated in the middle of an ESPN broadcast. But as Mr. Hamlin’s emergency was in the open for all to see, many viewers were left shaken and asking what such an injury says about America’s favorite pastime.
Thankfully, Damar Hamlin survived. The NFL wasted no time turning him into a marketing prop, with pre-game tributes and heartfelt taking place before every game in the Week 18 slate. This thinly-veiled attempt to change the narrative from critique to concern is no surprise, as the NFL can always be trusted to minimize criticism with empty platitudes on stadium signs and T-shirts.
On the other side of the conversation, Mr. Hamlin’s injury has boosted the call to phase out football altogether. A New York State bill to ban the sport for minors predates the January 2nd incident but has garnered support following the episode.
I find the NFL’s response abhorrent, and the move to outlaw the sport unrealistic. Professional football is a 17 billion dollar industry. Gameday is a staple of our culture, one of the last remaining links between rural and urban America. The NFL quite literally stole Sunday from God. Like it or not, football isn’t going anywhere, at least in the professional format.
But that does not mean we must preserve the status quo. The silver lining to this episode was a powerful, albeit brief, discussion of how players are treated by the NFL. Despite the high salaries and lavish lifestyles of the sport’s biggest names, many players are subject to mistreatment, unnecessary workplace hazards, and the exploitation of their labor.
Enter your email to receive writing straight to your inbox.
Players Are Workers. Workers Deserve Solidarity.
Though they are highly paid, professional football players are still workers. Annual income isn’t what determines one’s class. That is set by the person’s relationship to their workplace. In the case of Damar Hamlin and his teammates, they do not determine their pay, schedules, benefits, or retirement compensation. Those have been negotiated for and were set in the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement (C.B.A.) between the NFLPA (players’ union) and the owners. And while many players are millionaires whose children will never have to work a day in their life, many more are not. A 2015 study found as many as 16% of players were bankrupt less than 12 years into retirement. Many more live in various levels of poverty, which is exacerbated by their chronic injuries and ailments. It is these players, the ones who are seldom mentioned once they leave the limelight, who the C.B.A. is failing to protect.
“Bankruptcy rates are not affected by a player’s total earnings or career length. Having played for a long time and been well-paid does not provide much protection against the risk of going bankrupt.” — Bankruptcy Rates Among NFL Players with Short-Lived Income Spikes
Under the current players’ contract, a player must complete three seasons to become “vested” and receive benefits such as:
Health insurance for 5 years once you have finished playing
Player Annuity Program
Former Player Life Improvement Plan
88 Plan, a health reimbursement plan for vested players with “certain illnesses” (CTE and other neurological diseases caused by play).
If a player does not make it three years in the league, they do not receive any of these benefits. With the average career length being 3.3 years, a substantial number of NFL athletes are left without severance, post-career health insurance, and other necessary benefits.
And as you can see in the chart below, the average career length is raised by kickers and quarterbacks, two positions specifically protected from devastating hits. Cornerbacks, running backs, and wide receivers, positions that take the lion’s share of the impact, all average under the three-year vesting period. That is to say, the average running back will not receive any of the aforementioned benefits. And while the Bills say they will pay for Damar Hamlin’s care (I’ll believe it when I see it), it is worth noting Damar Hamlin is in his 2nd year, meaning he is not entitled to post-career health insurance.
Amidst this discussion, many fans are pointing the finger at NFLPA leadership for failing to secure a better deal. This is a fair critique, but one that must accompany a look in the mirror.
As former NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth said after the January 2nd game, many media members and fans who were sharing “thoughts and prayers” for Mr. Hamlin had previously called players for being “greedy” during the 2020 C.B.A. negotiations. Foxworth is 100% correct. Anyone who paid attention to the 2020 negotiations will remember how team owners pitted players as the reason there “might not be football this year.” While the NFLPA was negotiating for health and safety advancements, higher salaries, and other benefits for the less-known players, fan pressure to “bring football back” severely undercut the union’s confidence in the negotiations, leading the players to accept an inadequate deal.
It is on us, the NFL fandom, to accept that we have not expressed proper solidarity with NFL players. This is not only important to remember for the long-off 2030 C.B.A. negotiations but in the players’ current struggles. Fan solidarity will aid immediate issues while building a base of fan support for the NFLPA to wield for negotiations at the next agreement.
For example, fans should unequivocally back players in their individual contract negotiations (like the ongoing negotiation for Raven’s quarterback Lamar Jackson) and safety concerns, such as the players’ request to have all games played on grass, as turf fields increase the likelihood of injury.
But most importantly, the NFL deserves unrestrained condemnation for not paying the CTE settlements owed to former players from the CTE lawsuit. Buried under the day-to-day ongoings of the NFL season, the issue of plaintiffs receiving small or even negative settlements has gone under-discussed. This is an unequivocal evil, one that shows the true nature of the NFL and the capitalist class — profit is the only concern, humanity be damned.
If you’ve read any of my previous writings, you know I call on solidarity and support as the ailment to worker rights and labor issues. It is no different with the NFL. It costs fans absolutely nothing to back those negotiating for a higher salary (#PayLamar), or to shame owners who call workers “greedy” for wanting on-the-job health and safety protections. This is proper support for both Starbucks’ baristas and NFL running backs.
After all, it is not the players who threaten the game we love, but the owners. Like Capitalists in any industry, owners contribute nothing but dollars. They have no skill, no expertise, only capital. They have the audacity to call players greedy for seeking workplace protections, while they claim 52% of league profits. The only risk owners take is burning their tongues on the steak served in their lavish owner’s box. Meanwhile, as Mr. Hamlin can attest to, the players on the field are literally risking their lives.
There is no question about which party deserves our allegiance. Solidarity to the players, now and forever.
If you liked this article, please consider supporting my work by becoming a premium subscriber. Writing is my full-time job, so every subscription is vital.