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Why NFL Players Are Taking on Scott Walker

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The National Football League Players Association is playing politics in Wisconsin.

The union released a strongly worded statement yesterday denouncing the state's proposed right-to-work legislation -- which would prohibit businesses and unions from requiring workers to pay union dues -- and reaffirming its solidarity "with the working families of Wisconsin and organized labor in their fight against current attacks against their right to stand together as a team."

The statement, written by executive director DeMaurice Smith, pointed to the various support staff employed at the Green Bay Packers' Lambeau Field who "will have their wellbeing and livelihood jeopardized" by the law. It also acknowledged the "generations of skilled workers" who contribute to the state's various industries and pointed to the law's potentially devastating effects on wages and safety. Smith took direct shots at Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who may be looking to boost his presidential aspirations at the expense of the state's workers: "Governor Scott Walker may not value these vital employees, but as union members, we do." 

This isn't the first time pro athletes have stood with their working-class brethren. In 2012, both the NFLPA and the Major League Baseball Players Association fought against Michigan governor Rick Snyder's push for right-to-work legislation. The previous year, several Packers players released a statement condemning Walker's plan to cut collective bargaining rights, calling it an "unprecedented political attack" on public workers.

A few weeks later, during the most recent round of labor negotiations, the NFL itself came out in favor of the process. "We are committed to collective bargaining," league general counsel Jeff Pash said. "All over this country, collective bargaining is being challenged. We're committed to it. We believe it can work. It has worked. We believe it will work."

Needless to say, Governor Walker: When you're to the political right of the NFL on labor issues, you might be teetering over the edge.

Granted, the athletes were the big losers in the latest CBA, but as Smith has suggested, perhaps no one knows the importance of strong unions more than football players. From pension plans to post-retirement health care to protections from an inconsistent disciplinary system, the players' union has been vital for securing the relatively few rights football players have. As Smith told the Nation's Dave Zirin in 2012, those protections and others for non-football laborers "were not gifts from management. Someone in a corporate suite didn't decide one day that they would bestow that wonderful right upon a working person."

Sports has also shown us that strong unions aren't just good for workers -- they can be good for business. The MLB players' association is arguably the most powerful union in sports and in the country, evidenced by the explosion of high-priced, guaranteed contracts and the players' (somewhat misguided) success in fighting off certain rules such as a ban on smokeless tobacco. But players aren't the only ones raking in the cash: In the years since the 1994 labor strike, revenue has grown more than 320 percent, and the franchise value of teams increasing at a faster pace than even in the NFL. Maintaining labor peace was one of former commissioner Bud Selig's biggest accomplishments, the benefits of which were a major reason owners elected his right-hand man, Rob Manfred, as his successor.

In their relationship to management, football players are just like any other workers, constantly fighting for more rights as the executive class continuously increases its share of the pie. The NFLPA might also have a stake in this beyond protecting the ideals of unionization: According to the LaCrosse Tribune, 12 of the NFL's 32 teams are in states that have signed right-to-work laws; players on those teams aren't obliged to pay union dues. That hasn't affected membership, as players recognize the protections the union affords them. But if Wisconsin's law passes, workers and unions there are unlikely to be as fortunate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at