Adrian Peterson called the NFL players’ predicament “modern-day slavery.” Obviously, it was a poor metaphor, destined to be processed literally and to provoke manufactured outrage. His word choice was awful, but his point, better articulated, has some validity.
Here’s Peterson’s full quotation. His agent stresses it should be taken in context. The context doesn’t help him much.
AP: It’s modern-day slavery, you know? People kind of laugh at that, but there are people working at regular jobs who get treated the same way, too. With all the money … the owners are trying to get a different percentage, and bring in more money. I understand that; these are business-minded people. Of course this is what they are going to want to do. I understand that; it’s how they got to where they are now. But as players, we have to stand our ground and say, ‘Hey — without us, there’s no football.’ There are so many different perspectives from different players, and obviously we’re not all on the same page — I don’t know. I don’t really see this going to where we’ll be without football for a long time; there’s too much money lost for the owners. Eventually, I feel that we’ll get something done.
Football players are not slaves. No one forces them to play. Most would accept coercion and some form of bondage to receive a $10 million base salary. Peterson, presumably, wasn’t comparing his pampered material condition to that of a slave. He was trying to say there isn’t a free market for his labor, which is true.
The NFL is a trust, not a capitalist enterprise. Owners ensure profitability by collaborating and by limiting labor costs. Adrian Peterson could not choose his place of employment. The Vikings drafted him. Unable to solicit competing offers, he had no leverage to negotiate his salary. His team may “franchise” him to block him from exercising free agency. Even if he does become unrestricted, his earning potential is constrained by a salary cap. Peterson can never obtain the true market value for his work.
Peterson’s work places him at grave risk for catastrophic health issues later in life. His contract is also not guaranteed.
Players accept this system, because many of them make an obscene amount of money. They sacrifice a claim to fair labor practices in exchange for a draught from the treasure bath. Observers let the NFL’s arrangement slide because we must watch football on Sunday.
NFL owners tried to force through a change to this bargain. They opted out of the CBA. They gamed the television revenue so they would get it even if there was no season (overturned by a court ruling). They tried to put players in the position to accept less money for a longer season or enter a lockout they were not positioned to withstand. Not surprisingly, players pushed back by decertifying the union and suing to challenge the NFL’s unfair labor practices.
Adrian Peterson’s word choice was awful. NFL players have nothing in common with slaves. They have little in common materially with ordinary laborers, but it’s only viewing it through that guise that we understand the players’ position. The money involved inspires little empathy, but their labor predicament should.
NFL players aren’t ordinary people, but if ordinary people were treated in the manner NFL owners treat the players it would be profoundly unjust.
[Photo via Getty]