Socialize Football

A modest proposal to save the National Football League.

Luther College / Flickr

When owners refuse to negotiate with the reasonable demands of workers in vital industries, the state has historically stepped in to mediate, sometimes threatening to take control, and occasionally actually seizing capital and assets. In 1952 President Truman briefly nationalized the steel industry when owners refused to negotiate in good faith.

With the ongoing labor dispute with the referees in the NFL, one of America’s last great industries — the game of football — is under attack. Mr President, it’s time for some decisive leadership to bring together a nation in mourning, to save an industry in crisis.

It’s time to socialize football.

As a Wisconsonite, a Green Bay Packers fan, and a lover of football, the fiasco that unfolded on Monday Night Football marked a Rubicon in sports history. There’s no going back now. The football capitalists are destroying their industry, corrupting the game, and damaging the nation.

For the entire season, the owners have locked out the unionized referees and hired a slew of incompetent scabs. It’s been four weeks of erratic enforcement of penalties, calls going the wrong way, confusion and pandemonium — the safety of the players and the integrity of the game is at stake. On Monday the Packers lost to the Seattle Seahawks due to a series of shocking calls by the scabs in the fourth quarter. It was disgusting. Even Scott Walker wants the union refs back.

The scabs, euphemistically called “replacement refs,” are not the real culprit. The blame lies with the owners who locked out the refs because their union demanded a secure pension and stable working conditions.

But in a silver lining for Cheeseheads, the Packers organization shows the way out of this crisis. Green Bay is the only community–owned, nonprofit NFL team; the Packers have no capitalist owners. Far from suffering as neoliberal ideologues might suggest, this small–market team from the frozen tundra thrives because of its non-capitalist organization. For the good of the game, we should follow the Packers model and create an entire NFL without owners.

Who are these owners? Self-centered, ultra-rich attention seekers. What do they do? Jack shit — all of which makes them no different than the rest of America’s shareholder class. The NFL presents a strikingly clear case in which capital unashamedly exploits labor with vampire–like rapacity. The players make the game, yet the owners do nothing and walk away with half the revenue.

Imagine the NFL as a factory. The production–line workers are the players. It is a beautiful game, but playing football is brutal and violent work — most players have short careers and sacrifice their bodies for their vocation. The coaches, scouts, and trainers are the engineers, production planners, and shop–floor managers in the factory. Their schemes, strategies, and training prepare and coordinate the production process. Combined with the skills of the athletes, they engineer schemes and tactics that keep the game evolving and competitive.

The refs could easily be overlooked, but they play a crucial part in the valuation process. They are the quality control specialists, ensuring that working conditions are uniform and safe, and that a quality product is turned out, play-by-play and week-by-week. But the scabs can’t tell a touchdown from an interception, and the quality of the product — play-by-play and week-by-week — has deteriorated. If we want to keep this factory running, change has to start at the top.

What do owners do? They sit in luxury boxes — monocles, cigars, and brandy in hand — sucking their bloody profits from the bodies and minds of the players, coaches, and refs. Much like the super-wealthy in other sectors, at their best they provide story lines for the tabloids. But now the football capitalists are destroying their own industry. The Packers were cheated out of a victory on Monday night, but their organization shows that the owners are expendable.

For the good of the game, to preserve a national treasure, it’s time for socialization. After seizing the teams from the owners, the nation can turn the teams over to the stewardship of their communities, and give players, coaches, and refs the full compensation they deserve.

We can have a safer, more accessible game, motivated by values other than profit. But capitalists are standing in the way.