April 22, 2020
The NBA and NHL seasons might not get to end. The MLB, WNBA and NFL, among others might not get to start at all in 2020. Sports are on hold. All around the globe, except maybe for Taiwan’s Chinese Professional baseball League, which has recently started its season (with only staff and members of the media allowed).
We all miss them for many reasons and having sports back would be a sign that the worst is behind and we can breathe again. Literally.
As league commissioners, team owners, coaches and other executives are coming up with ways to hold their drafts, conduct regular business remotely and other creative ways to manufacture sports content for TV and for social media, and as they take calls from the US President urging to have football back in September, on schedule, players in all these leagues are fighting for a fair solution to their salary situation. MLB and MLBPA came to an agreement on March 26th, as reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan as have the NBA and NBPA on April 17th. The agreement, as explained in detail by Michael McCann for Sports Illustrated, ensures that players will be paid in full on may 1st and, beginning on May 15th, 25% of subsequent paychecks will be withheld, marking a gradual reduction in salary should the “Force Majeure” provision included in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) be enacted and should games be cancelled. The deadline for owners to cancel the season is May 10th and this agreement ensures payment for the players, albeit reduced, and shows clear efforts by both parties to save the season, if at all possible, and protect the current CBA. It is worth noting that of all the major pro leagues, the NBA is the only one that includes a “Force Majeure” provision. After this pandemic, it would not be surprising to see more leagues include it in their CBA.
The NFL and NFLPA are still reeling from the fight over the recently and narrowly approved CBA and although newly elected NFLPA president, JC Tretter has called for unity in an effort to move forward, there are long ways to go to achieve that. Veterans like Eric Reid and Russell Okung have been leading the charge, not only by fighting for all players, and especially the most vulnerable- disabled players- but also by exposing the dysfunction within the NFLPA. Retired players and their families have joined the chorus, and wives, in particular, are taking this opportunity to pull back the curtains on what life really is for a lot of former NFL players. And in many cases, it is not pretty. They are in the front row of this misery, and, as caregivers, they see and feel it all. It takes a lot for them to expose this reality to the world but the time has come. They have a voice in Eric Reid. And they have support from lawyers and advocates, as well as current and former players, now more than ever.
With so much of the world on lockdown right now and sports at a standstill, professional athletes have more time to interact with their fans, speak their mind, work on things they haven’t had to work on for a long time (like finishing a degree or learning a language), spending time with their family and showing us a side of them we don’t often get to see, without the filter of traditional media. Right now, most of their content comes straight from the source. For the first time maybe, at least to that extent, we can watch and listen to these athletes in their other environment: life. We get a bigger glimpse of who they are off the court or the field. Those we rarely see, though, are the retired players who are exhibiting the most symptoms of a life given to the game of football. The disabled retired players. They and their wives are the ones Eric Reid is working hard to empower and give a voice to right now. And we should all be paying attention.
In a conversation with Reid and his lawyer, Ben Meiselas (a partner at Geragos & Geragos), Hall of Famer and five-time Super Bowl Champion, Charles Haley opened up about the uphill battle he has been in to get the NFL to honor the lifetime commitment they made to him when he was helping fill up stadiums and win championships during his career. Hayley was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2003 and suffers from various physical ailments that require significant and costly treatments. That someone with this level of accomplishment still has to beg for his due, while the league continues to make money selling his jerseys and memorabilia should cause most of us to pause but it does not, unfortunately. Days after their interview with Haley, Reid and Meiselas had a global townhall, via Twitter’s live stream, with wives of retired disabled players who shared the realities they and their husbands had been forced to hide for a long time, and the crusade they had been on to secure disability benefits for these men for years, the promises the NFL and NFLPA had made to them and put on paper, the lives they had been forced to create for their families with the support they received, and the gut punch they all felt when the CBA was approved by the current players. Although it passed by a margin of 60 players and 500 players abstained, showing how divided players were on its content, the reality is that it still passed and with it came the realization that those benefits previously earned and fought for would be gutted. The already difficult road they have been traveling has become even more treacherous. Back in 2007, in front of Congress, NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell declared that players who had been determined to be eligible for disability benefits by the Social Security Administration (SSA) would not need any separate medical assessment to qualify for NFL disability benefits. Reasonable enough. Per the new CBA, that all changes. Former players who receive Total & Permanent (T&P) Disability benefits based on SSA will have to be re-examined by plan doctors. How this even became a negotiable item is beyond me, but to actually see it approved and become a reality that has already brought so much pain, anxiety and anger to so many families who have been betrayed, lied to, robbed and are now facing yet another battle to hold on to the life they have, which is, for many hanging on by a thread, is absolutely heart-wrenching. Ask Amon and Roxanne Gordon. Ask Ed and Dillia Simmons. Ask Keith O’Neil and his family. Ask Don and Kelly Majkowski. Ask Keith and Jill O’Neill. Ask Kanardy and Mark Green. Ask Aveion and Shannon Cason. Ask Patrick and Monique Pass. Ask Antoinette and Ethan Kelley. Ask the 400 players who will soon see their disability benefits reduced or canceled. And with the almost national lockdown in the US, driving up anxiety and depression levels in a lot of people, including those fallen soldiers of the field, and the fear that many might not make it is very real. They are terrified. Their families are terrified. We should be, too.
During his 2007 speech to Congress, Goodell assured everyone that the parties involved would “continue to address this issue in a way that is compassionate, creative and realistic.” Compassion seems to have disappeared from the process and I believe that we, fans and the media, have a role to play in helping bring it back.
Not everything that shines is golden. Almost nothing is as it seems. Just look around you and all the things in the world that seemed together just a month ago and are now in complete disarray. A pandemic has wreaked havoc through the world and removed the varnish from the most polished surfaces, revealing and exacerbating ills that were kept hidden (and in some cases ignored) from all but the people who were suffering from them. Our leaders, the people who make the big decisions for us, at work and in every other aspect of life, have, in many cases, been exposed as unprepared, uncaring, callous, even, and motivated by financial gains, first. Professional sports are no different. The NFL is no different. For all the glitz, glamor and entertainment we enjoy there is dirt, mold and structural damages to the foundations, and the time to look deeper and get to cleaning and repairing is long overdue.
Although there are a number of millionaires among active and retired NFL players, framing the battle between players and owners as “millionaires vs billionaires” is an oversimplification of the facts and too often the leading argument used by people to justify not caring about players’ concerns. The millionaires at the top with the big contracts and endorsement deals are the minority and even they are no match for their bosses on the other side of the table. The middle of the pack players, the majority, have even less power in the equation. Nobody, at the top, in the middle or the bottom of the ranks should have their health and well-being treated as an afterthought, a bargaining chip or a joke. It’s really that simple. Owners care about money (as well as the shield, their image and public opinion) and that is what they prioritize in their negotiations with players and their business deals day in and day out. Players care about money, too, but they also care about their health and well-being and time after time they have had to compromise on the latter to gain the little ground they could gain on the former. As fans, we don’t have a seat at the table per se but we impact leagues and teams’ bottom lines through our buying power and our overall consumption of sports online, on TV and in person. And we use these powers at will. And they know it. When it comes to health and safety, however, we haven’t historically been as pro players as we claim to be. We say we miss the sports we love and, as we await their return, in my humble opinion, there might be no better time for us to rethink our relationship to sports in some way, especially if we have this far consumed sports strictly as entertainment with very little regard for the athletes as whole human beings, not just numbers on the back of a jersey.
Missing sports…hopefully this causes ALL to realize that no matter what sport is their fav, the love it generates, the memories it creates, the + impact on our relationships it has, the model EI it displays, ALL the great things sports gives us…are given to us by the PLAYERS.
— ray @gencolaw (@GencoLaw) March 18, 2020
It’s time to educate ourselves on certain aspects of the game that we have willfully or not, ignored up to that point. It’s time to be vocal in our support of the efforts of players for better labor conditions, more protection and benefits for instance. It’s time to let the leagues know that more is expected from them.
With no sports being played, certain members of the media have started reporting on some of the issues affecting athletes and certain practices that should be revisited or even done away with. Just like athletes have become more knowledgeable about the business side of the sports they play and can make more informed decisions when it comes to their rights, fans can become more knowledgeable on these things as well and better understand some of the struggles that the men and women we cheer on in stadiums, arenas or on TV beyond what the headlines say and beyond the beliefs we have held up to this point. I don’t expect everybody to do this or to even have an interest in learning more, but the more people we can get to understand these issues from the players’ perspectives rather than just from what is usually fed to us, which tends to be centered around what the leagues and their executives think and want us all to know, the better our chances to create a cultural shift.
Peeling back layers and uncovering uncomfortable truths is not fun and has the potential of forcing us to ask ourselves tough questions: Am I complicit? Is this right? Why do I even watch this? But they are necessary questions and this applies to everything in our life way beyond sports, especially at this time when life as we have known it has been drastically transformed by a novel coronavirus we still don’t know enough about to know what its long-term impact will be. We want sports to come back, they need to come back and they will be back but it is important that we don’t sacrifice the well-being of the human beings involved at the altar of entertainment and greed. We will all benefit, both in the short and the long term, from sports’ return if it is done safely and carefully.
Sports give a lot to a lot of people: fans, media, athletes, cities, universities, states, countries… Sports take a lot, too. Those it takes the most from are those who give it the most: the athletes. They are the product but they are not products.
Fans and members of the media, we are a part of the sports experience just as much as any other actors in it, and our voices and the way we choose to use them have an impact. Players, active and retired, need us more than ever. Let’s show them that we care.
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