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NFL players have a solidarity problem

Debates over pensions and health care for retired players show the difficulty in uniting around important issues

Where is our solidarity? We invoke the language of brotherhood incessantly — when does it manifest itself?

Current and former NFL players have addressed these questions in the aftermath of a group of Hall of Fame players’ recent demands for increased pensions and improved health care. Former running back Eric Dickerson, who has become a spokesman for this fledgling movement, says he wants every Hall of Famer to get $300,000 a year along with comprehensive health care coverage. After securing that goal, the group promises to work to improve pensions and health care for rank-and-file players. He told Bob Ley during ESPN’s Outside the Lines that retired players require “a seat at the CBA table” to fulfill the mission.

Ley asked Dickerson, “How would you characterize the job that the players union, to your mind, has done in taking care of retired players?”

“Horrible,” Dickerson responded.

Therein lies the problem. Current NFL players don’t adequately represent their interests. They should.

This dilemma isn’t new. Dickerson recalled Gene Upshaw, former executive director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) from 1983 to 2008, once telling him, “I don’t have an obligation to retired players. My obligation is to current players. [Retired players] can’t hire me or fire me.”

NFL players, for whatever reason, seem to lack solidarity, which hinges on the ability to see one’s self in another’s shoes. We often observe strong levels of solidarity in some racial contexts. Black people react to police shootings so viscerally because we can imagine ourselves or someone we love in the place of, say, Botham Jean, the man killed by Amber Guyger, an off-duty Dallas police officer.

NFL players seem averse to thinking that way.

The NFLPA should have fired Upshaw for uttering that remark — the current players at the time should have understood that one day they would be retired players. If they didn’t take care of those who came before them, why would those who come after take care of them?

We see this lack of solidarity reveal itself in other ways. Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Ramon Foster, for example, complained to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about running back Le’Veon Bell’s refusal to sign a $14.5 million franchise tag offer.

What do you do? Here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn, I guess, so we’ll treat it as such. I just hate it came to this,” Foster said. “He’s making seven times what I make, twice as much as Al [Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva] is making, and we’re the guys who do it for him.”

Those remarks, and others from disgruntled Steelers, ignore the principle that people should be able to set the cost of their own labor. If Bell refuses to work for $14.5 million, he should be free to make that decision without fielding criticism from other players. The reason is obvious: Foster wouldn’t want someone else telling him what amount he should be satisfied to earn. In other words, he should have imagined himself in Bell’s shoes and behaved accordingly.

Maybe the NFL players failed an even bigger solidarity test when some stood on the sidelines as the league owners blackballed their supposed brother, Colin Kaepernick. NFL players know better than anyone that he deserves an NFL contract. Perhaps players don’t feel in a position to speak or act publicly. But that’s the beauty of solidarity — the 32 NFL teams can’t punish them all if they join together.

Dickerson’s own movement to take care of Hall of Famers suffers from a lack of solidarity. Why delay justice for the non-Hall of Famers? After all, the success of this endeavor will likely hinge on gaining public compassion. The players who never made that many coins but still ache from the physical and mental horrors of the game are the most sympathetic. Dickerson, while criticizing a lack of solidarity, revealed he suffered from the same ailment.

Players do appear to appreciate the power of solidarity — but seemingly just when pertaining to guaranteed dollars. When Kirk Cousins signed a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings, players understood that would benefit them all.

But until they absorb how their lack of solidarity undermines the totality of their interests, NFL players, whether current or retired, will remain in their predicament and endure suboptimal working conditions.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at Andscape and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.