“But what are you going to do? You've got to play within the rules,” says Vince Wilfork.
“I don't have any control over that. I just try to do my job,” says Tom Brady.
“A lot of people are complaining. We've got what we got. Everyone needs to accept it,” says Gerald McCoy.
This is what we teach our children, or this is what our parents teach us when we embark on the temporarily infinite yet ultimately futile path of athletic competition: worry about only that which you can control. We are conditioned to aspire for nobility; to dispute the officials is a debasing practice and shows poor character.
What, then, when the system is broken? Is it really noble to say, “that aspect of the game is out of my control”? The problem with inaction being historically viewed as honorable is we forget that it’s inaction, so when things have gone quite wrong, one cannot be passive.
Last week Steve Young, the former 49ers quarterback turned law school graduate, went at the league harder than anyone has yet. Despite a career of concussions, he made the incontestable point that the NFL simply does not care. Even the most blind and enthusiastic of fans have felt, at any given point this season, that the new “safety first” campaign Goodell’s empire has launched in recent years is hollow and self-serving. But as Young explains, by allowing underprepared officials to man these games, the NFL is putting money over player safety and enjoyment of their product. This is not a new practice in our society, but we don’t need more reminders that our athletes are disposable.
As in the real world, there is a breaking point. As the teachers in Chicago and Washington have, as auto workers have several times, when the workplace is offering an unfit and unfair working environment we hope our union is there to support us in a strike. If we were still looking for the breaking point, last night’s disaster was clearly it. We’ve had calls here and there in the first three weeks that had a chance to influence the outcome of the game, but last night the zebras put Seattle directly into the winner’s column and left Green Bay with one of the longest intracontinental flights ever. After nearly four quarters of poor judgment, Seattle’s Russell Wilson threw a 24-yard pass to Golden Tate for the last second game winning touchdown. The snag was that in real time it was obvious that Golden Tate committed offensive pass interference and that the Green Bay Packer’s M.D. Jennings came down with the ball. Upon slower review, it was beyond obvious that Tate committed offensive pass interference and Jennings caught the ball, but alternate camera angles did suggest Tate had an arm wrestled somewhere within the vicinity of the ball. It was the king kernel of derp moments and John Gruden and Mike Tirico were simply beautiful in their incredulity.
We’re going to complain about this. Coaches will sound off, players will tweet, and the brass will fine. But then we will all show up next Sunday. When the NFL players say that the officiating is out of their hands, they’re taking the easy way out. The players are the product, and it would benefit them to remind the NFL just that. The “Occupiers”- in our sort of national protest/strike quagmire – had occasional support from a fiery outsider in Slavoj Zizek. After last week’s speech, Steve Young can easily fill that role – the wise and blunt sage, the radical in a mess of teeth-smilers.
Oh, but perhaps it’s not so easy. Part of the new CBA the NFL and NFLPA signed last season limits the reasons the players may strike. In fact the new CBA limits the reasons the players may strike to one reason: the NFLPA can only authorize a strike of its players if the security of the union to operate as a union is put into jeopardy.
I, like most Americans, have no idea how anything works but love to yell and respond using emotions and little supporting evidence. But this clause itself seems pretty detrimental to a union being able to function as a union. If you cannot organize a strike to protect your workers, then have you not jeopardized the security of a union to operate as one?
Professional sports is a funny and gross business, but no matter how outlandish it gets Steve Young is unfortunately right. Fans and athletes continue to prove the machine is too big to stop and the energy needed to really affect change would be better spent peddling this broken system.