Feckless Players Union to Blame for Soldier Field Turf Embarrassment

| August 15th, 2022

Read the above tweet and understand two things.

One. J.C. Tretter is the current President of the NFLPA, the National Football League Players Association.

Two. The union did nothing to prohibit the playing of Saturday afternoon’s contest at Soldier Field.

This begs a simple question: what is the point of the NFLPA?

You can scavenge the internet and read plenty about the origin of trade unions. Most think the concept was conceived in 18th century Britain, as industry became concentrated in the cities, drawing the multitudes to work. Tailors went on strike in New York City in 1768 and in Philadelphia, the shoemakers established the first sustained union in America in 1794. These organizations were forged to protect two essentials: wages and working conditions.

When it comes to wages, the NFLPA has been relatively useless. They’ve allowed the second most lucrative sports league in the world to institute a hard salary cap. They collectively bargained the franchise tag, the most owner-friendly contract quirk in modern sports, which has an approval rating among the membership south of 0%. And, most absurdly, the NFL remains the only major sports league without guaranteed contracts for its players. From Dom Consentino at The Score:

There are some longstanding structural barriers that have prevented guaranteed contracts from becoming more common in the NFL. But contrary to popular belief, there is nothing to prevent a player or player’s agent from negotiating a contract that is fully guaranteed. In fact, that’s exactly how such deals became the norm for players in MLB, the NBA, and the NHL. The difference is that years ago, a variety of competitive circumstances provided players in those leagues with a strong enough bargaining position to establish contract guarantees as standard in ways that never happened in the NFL.

As Roger Noll, an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford University, told me: “Guaranteed contracts were created by competitive necessity.”

Noll’s point is well taken but incomplete. Guaranteed contracts were also created by bold leadership.

As for working conditions, the NFLPA has been slightly better. They excommunicated two-a-days from the football lexicon and basically eliminated practice contact. But they did nothing to prevent the proliferation of the Thursday Night Football schedule – a clear health risk for the membership – and did less than nothing to prevent the increase to a 17th game, something no one in the football world, aside from owners, wanted.

And then, Saturday happened.

Andy Reid compared the turf to his high school field. Cairo Santos complained about the “sandy” conditions. (Sandy? Fucking SANDY????) Everyone knew, hours before kickoff, the football pitch was unfit for professional use. And yet, the game wasn’t canceled. Fan money wasn’t refunded. The players all jumped onto the grass and risked their ACLs, with only a mildly concerned tweet emanating from the top of their union.

Soldier Field’s turf is an unsafe working condition and has been consistently for years. Those issues are only addressed effectively when the union representing the workers isn’t as feckless as the NFLPA. I’m reminded of Bryant Gumbell’s brilliant parting shot to Roger Goodell on Real Sports, as his predecessor was stepping aside:

“Before he cleans out his office,” Gumbel said, “have Paul Tagliabue show you where he keeps Gene Upshaw’s leash. By making the docile head of the players union his personal pet, your predecessor has kept the peace without giving players the kind of guarantees other pros take for granted. Try to make sure no one competent ever replaces Upshaw on your watch.”

The NFL laughs at the NFLPA. And rightfully so. What will happen after Saturday? The same things that always happen.

Players moan. Check.

Media writes about it. Check.

Bears formally complain to city. Check.

City apologizes and reiterates the plan to lay new sod before the regular season begins. Check.

By midseason, the turf is a disaster again. Pending.

Embarrassment continues. Pending.

Think of the impact Tretter and the NFLPA could have had if they demanded their union members not play Saturday. Think of the shockwaves it would have created at Halas Hall and the league office, as fans were turned away at the gate and money was returned to their checking accounts. Think of the precedent it would have set for acceptable playing conditions at Soldier Field moving forward, giving the PLAYERS the power to determine whether they deem those conditions safe or not.

The Bears are going to be on the lakefront for another half decade, at least. And for another half decade there will be no improvement when it comes the playing surface. The Bears are essentially powerless. The league has no impetus to act. The city will continue doing the absolute minimum. The only group with the power, and leverage, to effect serious change, is the union representing the men who put their livelihoods at risk every time they set foot on that surface.

But that kind of bold, competent leadership requires J.C. Tretter cut loose from Goodell’s leash, close the Twitter app, and act.

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