Why the Packers Back the Protesters

By Dave Zirin
New Yorker.com
February 28, 2011

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/sportingscene/2011/02/packers-wisconsin-unions.html

After a thirty-year erosion of power, influence, and
numerical strength, a period of reckoning has arrived for
organized labor, and the terms of the debate couldn't be
starker. It's not wages or benefits that are being negotiated
in the twenty-first century. It's whether labor unions-and
the basic protections they bring-will exist at all.

This can be seen dramatically in the two most high-profile
labor disputes in the country, disputes that on their face
couldn't seem more different. There are the public-sector
workers of Wisconsin-the teachers, ambulance drivers, and
child-care workers-trying to fend off Governor Scott Walker's
efforts to legislate them out of existence. Then there are
the N.F.L. players, facing an imminent lockout if they don't
accept massive wage cuts and a longer season.

It seems almost comical to compare the two: after all, in
Wisconsin, public-sector workers are attempting to defend
decent-paying jobs that they can keep for decades and then
retire with a sense of security. In the N.F.L., the Players
Association is attempting to defend lucrative careers that
last on average three and a half years, have a hundred per
cent injury rate, and will statistically result in death
twenty years earlier than the typical American male.

But both face someone across the negotiating table-Governor
Walker or N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell-who questions
their right to exist and their right to organize. They are
reading from the same neo-liberal playbook, and the only
difference is that Goodell actually has a college degree and
is probably just savvy enough not to take a prank call
supposedly from one of the Koch brothers. (When I was in
Madison last week, I saw twenty eight-year-olds with a banner
that read, 'Scotty is as smart as my potty.') Goodell and the
N.F.L. owners are guaranteed network-television and
sponsorship money whether there are any games this year or
not. That's why the owners, with nary a dissent, have
announced that they are ready and willing to lock the doors,
even if it forces the union to decertify and they lose the
season.

But repression creates bizarre bedfellows. And one of the
most bizarre, at least superficially, has been the support
for the striking public workers from the N.F.L. Players
Association and the Green Bay Packers.

The Packers won the Super Bowl a few weeks-and for the state,
several lifetimes-before the explosion in Wisconsin. Scott
Walker, just days before he threatened to call in the
National Guard on the state's workers, immediately declared
February 'Packers month.' But the Packers are more than the
closest thing the state has to an official religion. They are
the only non-profit, fan-owned team in all of major U.S.
professional sports. This is a team with a hundred and twelve
thousand owners. When they won the Super Bowl, their coach,
Mike McCarthy, said, 'We're a community-owned football team,
so you can see all the fingerprints on our trophy.'

Several players took the Green Bay ethos to heart and
immediately backed the workers. Current players Brady
Poppinga and Jason Spitz, and former Packers Curtis Fuller,
Chris Jacke, Charles Jordan, Bob Long, and Steve Okoniewski
said,

    "We know that it is teamwork on and off the field that
    makes the Packers and Wisconsin great. As a publicly
    owned team we wouldn't have been able to win the Super
    Bowl without the support of our fans. It is the same
    dedication of our public workers every day that makes
    Wisconsin run…. But now in an unprecedented political
    attack Governor Walker is trying to take away their right
    to have a voice and bargain at work. The right to
    negotiate wages and benefits is a fundamental
    underpinning of our middle class. When workers join
    together it serves as a check on corporate power and
    helps ALL workers by raising community standards."

Rookie tight end Tom Crabtree tweeted, 'i fully support wi
unions and i think Gov. Walker is out of his damn mind.'

None of these players have a particularly high profile. But
as the struggle intensified, the team's defensive captain,
Charles Woodson, couldn't stay silent, as I reported in the
Nation.

A former Heisman trophy winner at the University of Michigan,
N.F.L. defensive player of the year, and perennial pro-
bowler, Woodson is also the team's co-captain and union rep.
His words landed in sports pages around the country:

    "Thousands of dedicated Wisconsin public workers provide
    vital services for Wisconsin citizens. They are the
    teachers, nurses and child care workers who take care of
    us and our families. These hard working people are under
    an unprecedented attack to take away their basic rights
    to have a voice and collectively bargain at work.

    It is an honor for me to play for the Super Bowl Champion
    Green Bay Packers and be a part of the Green Bay and
    Wisconsin communities. I am also honored as a member of
    the NFL Players Association to stand together with
    working families of Wisconsin and organized labor in
    their fight against this attempt to hurt them by
    targeting unions. I hope those leading the attack will
    sit down with Wisconsin's public workers and discuss the
    problems Wisconsin faces, so that together they can truly
    move Wisconsin forward."

Immediately, across Web message boards came the familiar
notion that he should just 'shut up and play.' As one person
wrote, 'Stay out of it, Charles. Keep your mouth shut and do
what you do best-just win.' But as Woodson must realize, and
as the wise, august message-board commenter clearly does not,
this isn't a moment for any pro football player to just know
his place and shut his mouth. It's about solidarity that both
sides desperately need. Two very different labor forces both
are facing battles for their respective futures against
bosses that see them as expendable. It's the twenty-first-
century fight: from the Governor's office to the gridiron.

[Dave Zirin is the author of 'Bad Sports: How Owners are
Ruining the Games we Love' (Scribner) and just made the new
documentary 'Not Just a Game.' Receive his column every week
by emailing [log in to unmask] Contact him at
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