The NFL is an Abusive Workplace

As Super Bowl Sunday draws near, it’s important to remember the systemic labor issues that plague the nation’s most popular sport.

This weekend brings another Super Bowl Sunday—the culmination of five chaotic months of NFL football and the single most-watched sporting event in the United States. All around the country, more than 200 million people are expected to sit down and watch the CBS telecast, whether they’re in it for the game itself, the commercials, or the ongoing Taylor Swift/Travis Kelce romance that’s become a national obsession. The Super Bowl, and the NFL in general, aren’t just popular; in a lot of ways, they’re emblematic of the United States and its culture. But just like the wider nation, the NFL has serious labor issues that have formed a dark undercurrent to the whole football season. From workers’ rights to workplace safety, the past year has revealed that professional football is just as exploitative as any other industry, and just as much in need of radical change. 

First, there’s the turf issue. This has been debated extensively all season, ever since New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles tendon in Week One, just four plays into his tenure with the team. The Jets are one of 15 teams in the NFL that use artificial plastic turf—rather than grass—on their home fields, and a lot of people think that turf played a key role in Rodgers’ season-ending injury. As the authors of a 2018 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine point out, “synthetic turf surfaces do not release cleats as readily as natural turf,” causing more tension on players’ lower bodies—and thus, more injuries, the study found. In an interview for NPR, orthopedist Timothy Kremchek explains how this works:

Your footing gets caught in the artificial turf, and it doesn’t give. And when that doesn’t give, then your body is twisting and/or people are falling on you. You’re trying to make quick cuts. Then something has to give, whether it’s your ankle sprained, broken, Achilles tendon, knee. And it’s been a real problem with multiple sports at all levels for a lot of years.

Rodgers isn’t the only NFL player to suffer a nasty injury on fake turf this season, either. In a case with striking similarities to his, Jaelan Phillips—a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins—tore his Achilles tendon in a November game against the Jets, in the very same stadium. In a heated moment after the game, Phillips’ teammate Jevon Holland called the Jets’ field “trash,” and he has a point. 

In fact, 92 percent of athletes represented by the NFL Players’ Association, the main union for professional football, want artificial turf fields gone. On his podcast New Heights, Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce (brother to Travis) made the case in no uncertain terms:

We need to get rid of turf altogether. And I don’t want to hear, like, “it’s an indoor stadium.” They make UV lights. You can grow grass inside[….] Just stop it. We went through this with Astroturf, back in the day. It ruined guys’ careers. Now we’re seeing the same thing with this turf, and it’s only going to continue to happen. Just go back to the grass. 

So far, though, the owners of most NFL franchises haven’t heeded his call. And it’s easy to see why: from their perspective, fake turf is a lot cheaper and easier to deal with. It doesn’t need watering, mowing, fertilizer, and aeration the way real grass does, and it doesn’t get torn up during each game, requiring professional groundskeepers to come in and repair it. The NFL itself has resisted players’ demands for safer fields, with league officials muddying the waters by saying that “Some artificial turf surfaces have a lower injury rate than some grass fields—and some grass fields have a lower injury rate than some artificial surfaces,” and that “there are no simple answers.” As NBC’s Pro Football Talk scathingly responded, it would be more accurate to say that “there are no inexpensive ones.” The actual science isn’t in question. When the American Journal of Sports Medicine published a report on the turf issue, researchers found that 16 percent more injuries happened on turf fields vs. grass ones between 2012 and 2016, a figure that rises to 20 percent if you only count “non-contact” injuries like sprains and tears. For that reason, FIFA soccer has already banned fake turf for the 2026 World Cup, so clearly it can be done—but it took them a “multimillion-dollar investment.” Jason Kelce, and people like him, are completely correct about turf. The NFL is just trying to lie about it, and allow the 15 turf-using franchises to continue inflicting harm on their players so their owners can save money. 

It wouldn’t be the first time the league has lied about player safety. Even at the best of times, tackle football is a dangerous sport, since it involves huge guys running headfirst into each other. Shockingly, it turns out that isn’t good for the human brain. Just like professional boxers, NFL players have a high rate of traumatic brain injuries, most notably chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE.) In fact, football may be worse than boxing in this regard, with a staggering 92 percent of deceased NFL players examined at Boston University showing signs of CTE. And although CTE itself can’t be formally diagnosed until after death, there is a similar condition called TES (traumatic encephalopathy syndrome) in living patients. Its symptoms include things like unexplained short-term memory loss and difficulty regulating emotions, and they’re not uncommon among former NFL players. In the New York Times, Emily Kelly—who’s married to retired New Orleans Saints safety Rob Kelly—gives a firsthand account of what it’s like to live with TES:

Rob’s mood swings scare me sometimes, and I always have to be in tune with early signs of his agitation. I try to protect him from stress so he won’t be overwhelmed. It’s exhausting. Our fights went in bizarre circles and were never resolved. He would be irrationally upset about one thing but would quickly lose track and begin rambling about something that had no connection to the topic at hand. Every argument we had ended with me thinking: “This isn’t normal. This is not what couples fight about. Something’s wrong.”

And as if this weren’t bad enough, a 2021 study found that NFL athletes are also more likely to develop ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease—“over three times more likely” than the overall male population. 

Recently, the NFL has taken measures to reduce the horrifying rates of brain trauma in football, like increasing penalties for rough tackles and providing helmets with more padding. But that’s only after they spent many years denying the problem existed at all, and trying to prevent former players from getting adequate healthcare and disability benefits. In 2016, a Congressional investigation revealed that league officials tried to pressure the National Institutes of Health to strip $16 million in funding from neuroscientists at Boston University, the very institution that gave us the 92 percent figure for CTE. The league also waged a disinformation campaign against Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who first characterized CTE by analyzing deceased NFL players’ brains and finding unique patterns of damage that could not be attributed to other known degenerative conditions. The league’s denial was especially shameful because it had previously admitted that one player, “Iron Mike” Webster, had been “totally and permanently” disabled by head trauma. (Will Smith, no stranger to inflicting head trauma himself, made an entire movie about Omalu’s struggle to have his research acknowledged.) In 2013, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit over players’ brain injuries, tacitly admitting that it had “conceal[ed] the dangers of concussions and rush[ed] injured players back onto the field.” But it also used a deeply racist practice called “race norming” to evaluate claims, assuming a “lower baseline of cognitive abilities in Black players” and denying them disability payments on that basis. I repeat: this was in 2013, long after that kind of medical racism should have become a distant memory. Since then, there hasn’t been any fundamental change in how the NFL is run, or who ultimately controls it. It’s still the same owners and administrators, and they’ve demonstrated that they’re more than willing to place profits above human life and health. There’s no reason anyone should trust what they say about safety conditions on the field, or medical science off it. 

There’s another health and safety issue in the NFL, too, which doesn’t get as much attention: Thursday Night Football. For decades, NFL games were held almost exclusively on Sundays, with a single Monday Night Football game to cap the weekend off. But in 2006, the league introduced extra games on Thursday nights, and they’ve been a nightmare. Apart from anything else, the teams featured are often terrible; there’s nothing more dismal than watching the Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers duke it out to see who sucks more. But playing on Thursday is bad for athletes, too. It dramatically reduces the time they have to rest and recover from the previous game, from an entire week to just a few days. Richard Sherman, the legendary Seattle Seahawks cornerback, has written an article called “Why I Hate Thursday Night Football,” in which he politely describes it as a “poopfest”:

We’ve seen blowouts, sloppy play and games that have been almost unwatchable — and it’s not the players’ faults. Their bodies just aren’t ready to play. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Cowboys-Vikings game a couple of weeks ago was the best TNF game we’ve seen this season. You know why? Because they both played on Thanksgiving the week before, so they each had a full week off. Thursday Night Football is just another example of the NFL’s hypocrisy: The league will continue a practice that diminishes the on-field product and endangers its players, but as long as the dollars keep rolling in, it couldn’t care less.

Sherman’s opinion is fairly representative of his fellow players, including former Tennessee Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo, who said that “we all hate” Thursday games in 2017. Even Skip Bayless, the notoriously cranky host of Fox’s sports analysis show Undisputed, concurs. There’s also evidence that injuries are slightly more common on Thursday nights, with 6.9 per game in 2017 compared to 6.3 all other days. But the NFL is making vast amounts of money from Thursday Night Football, having signed an exclusive $1 billion-per-season deal with Amazon to broadcast Thursday games on the Prime platform. Since Jeff Bezos—who’s also expressed an interest in buying an NFL team—got involved, the league has announced that they’ll increase the number of Thursday games, scheduling some teams for two in a season instead of one. Once again, the profits involved are the only consideration that truly matters. 

If the players have serious labor and safety concerns, though, the situation is just as bad for other kinds of workers in the NFL—and especially for women. Currently, 25 of the 32 NFL teams have a cheerleading squad, and although a few teams introduced male cheerleaders in 2018, it’s historically a pretty sexist institution. Just like football itself, cheerleading takes a high degree of athletic skill and training, but the paychecks don’t reflect that fact. According to a 2015 article in the New York Times, NFL cheerleaders are “often paid well below minimum wage,” and often work “without overtime, workers’ compensation coverage or lunch breaks.” Considering that the league routinely pays multimillion-dollar salaries to backup quarterbacks who sit on the bench for the majority of games, there’s no excuse for this. It’s purely a matter of not valuing women’s labor. There’s also rampant gender-based abuse, with one cheerleader for the Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders reporting that she and her co-workers could be “benched without pay if they gained weight,” and were “forced into situations where they were sexually harassed,” like events at casinos and golf tournaments where they were required to appear in bikinis for the patrons to leer at. Like with the league’s other systemic problems, there’s been barely any reform

It can be difficult getting people to care about the NFL’s injustices, because the general perception is that working in the league is extremely lucrative. When Colin Kaepernick launched his protest against police brutality, for instance, he was constantly described as a “spoiled millionaire,” and he got only limited support from the public when the league blackballed him for his political views. In 2011, sportswriter Heneli Iongi scoffed at the idea that NFL players needed a better collective bargaining agreement, saying that “They don’t know what it’s like to work a normal job and get a normal person’s pay” and “to say that they deserve more is utterly ridiculous.” In one sense, it’s easy to see why people might believe this. Every year, superstar players like Kaepernick or Aaron Rodgers make tens of millions of dollars, more than an ordinary person will see in their entire lifetime. This past season, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray signed a new contract for $230.5 million over five years, and he isn’t even particularly good. But these jaw-dropping salaries only go to a tiny handful of the most famous players. In a 2020 interview with socialist podcast Chapo Trap House, former Los Angeles Chargers running back Justin Jackson described the other side of the equation, noting that “60, 70 percent of the guys” form what he calls “the working class of the NFL,” and make much less. In fact, many NFL players make only a league minimum salary: currently, $750,000 a year. To be clear, that’s still more than most people earn in the U.S.—but when you consider that the average pro football career lasts just 3.3 years, and can leave players with chronic health problems that make it hard to work any other job, it doesn’t look so excessive. (In fact, Forbes estimates that around 80 percent of former NFL players go broke within 3 years of leaving the league.) In any case, work is work, and in the NFL, that work is particularly strenuous on the body. Every worker deserves a safe workplace and a democratic say in how that workplace is run, no matter how many zeroes are on their bank balance. 

And who, might we ask, benefits from all these perverse and terrible working conditions? Why, the owners, of course. You’ve probably seen these people on TV, sitting up in their lofty glass-and-metal stadium boxes, aloof from the crowd. Some of them are the scions of the United States’ wealthiest families, like the Detroit Lions’ Sheila Ford Hamp or the New England Patriots’ Robert Kraft. Looking up at them, you might ask yourself: what do these people do, exactly? And the answer is, with a few minor exceptions: nothing. They don’t coach the teams. They don’t make decisions about what players to draft, trade, and hire from free agency; that’s what general managers are for. They certainly don’t provide the product that the entire league exists to sell. The players do that, together with the groundskeepers, cheerleaders, referees, trainers, medical staff, and every other type of worker. In short, NFL owners are like every other capitalist in this country—sitting idly by, siphoning off the value that other people risk life and limb to generate for them. As Rudi Batzell wrote for Jacobin more than a decade ago, there’s no reason to have them around at all; the Green Bay Packers are “the only community-owned, nonprofit NFL team; the Packers have no capitalist owners,” and they do just fine. Probably better, since they can devote 100 percent of their revenue to operating the team without a percentage being taken off the top for the boss. Batzell argues that we should “socialize football,” remaking every other team in the Packers’ image, and that sounds like a pretty good idea. 

To accomplish real change in the current system, though, players will need to organize. They already have a union, the NFLPA, but it could be more militant; there’s room for a reform campaign, like the ones that recently transformed the Teamsters and United Auto Workers into fighting labor organizations for the first time in decades. Ideally, the NFLPA would expand to become an NFL Workers’ Association, bringing everyone who’s not a player—and not represented by their own union already—into the camp, and fighting for their rights, too. There hasn’t been a strike in the NFL since 1987, when most of the players walked out and were replaced for three games by scabs, who most fans hated. But as Deadspin sportswriter Dom Cosentino puts it, that strike “created the modern NFL,” winning players bigger salaries and a variety of new rights. The story of the ’87 strike—perhaps best told by documentarian Jon Bois, in his short film “Randall Cunningham Seizes the Means of Production”—reminds us that NFL athletes have a tremendous amount of leverage, when they get together and use it. The bosses can’t just replace players like Patrick Mahomes or Christian McCaffrey, and public opinion would crush them if they tried. If the NFL and its owners won’t change for the better on their own, maybe it’s time for organized labor to force their hand. 

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