The UK and USA have many differences, but none are more fundamentally different than the social attitudes towards wealth, poverty, unions, and workers rights. In Britain, a Conservative government wouldn't dare publicly suggest anything resembling the dismantling of the NHS, whereas in America, a Democratic government puts together a ramshackle piecemeal healthcare plan that still leaves all the power with the insurance companies and is labelled socialist for the privilege. Make no mistake, class has been an important factor in the make up of British society, but today talk of money and wealth is taboo, and discussing economic fortunes in Darwinian terms is highly frowned upon. America, by contrast, perhaps because it is a nation founded on prospectors and entrepreneurs, ties wealth and status much closer to the concept of success. Social and economic justice is derided as Soviet, and campaigners for better working conditions and pay are no good whingers who should be happy with what they've got.
Amazingly, NFL players seem to be the one exception to this rule. It could be that the American fascination with wealth, power and celebrity, which doesn't have the same reserved British distaste for talking about money, has created the conditions for this, but the poor downtrodden millionaires of the National Football League seem to be among the only workers in America who are able to unite and fight their corner without being branded un-American work shy communists.
Soccer has its own problems with primadonnas and overpaid egotists, but they are not treated in the same way. Look for example at the differences in public reaction towards the ostentatious and image conscious Cristiano Ronaldo, and the more reclusive and introverted Lionel Messi. The differences in their paychecks can't be much as both are paid unbelievably well, but one is reviled for his perceived selfishness and vanity, while the other is loved for his happy go lucky and humble attitude.
But nothing quite compares to the stars of the NFL, who are not only paid unthinkably well-- Sam Bradford's $86 million contract two years ago when selected by the Rams as the No. 1 pick in the draft sticks out as particularly galling - but their right to act out, misbehave, work to rule, and generally give less than 100% seems to be institutionalised not only in the game, but in the American psyche.
Take the yearly ritual of draft picks threatening to hold out and miss an entire year of play just to make a couple of thousand extra bucks on their contracts - it amazes me constantly that the connection between the player, his team, and their fans isn't instantly broken from the get go. When Michael Crabtree held out of the first few games two years ago, when he did finally sign a contract, he was underwhelming, and then had the cheek to try and blame his lack of production on not having a full off season to prepare.
If a player has a contract dispute, they'll hold out of minicamp-- even ones with seemingly tangible and deep connections to the team they play for, such as the Saints' Drew Brees, surely damaging both team morale and the time available to coaches in order to formulate game plans. In addition, offseason training activities - OTAs - are not mandatory, but optional, an option that several star players choose to decline, instead holding their own personal workouts outside of the team structure.
In the past month, four NFL players have been caught driving under the influence. The response to this was Mike Freeman of CBS Sports citing the shut down of the 'Safe Rides' program by the NFL as a potential reason. The 'Safe Rides' program, if you haven't heard of it, is essentially an exclusive taxi service promoted by the NFL Players association and inscribed on the back of the Union cards handed out to the players, for them to use, while too drunk to drive. The entire concept to me is completely ludicrous that a set of people could be so over-privileged that they could consider themselves above having to wait for a cab if they want to have a drink. This is America, where not only do you not have a public healthcare system, you barely have a public transport network.
In many ways the most ludicrous thing though happened last week, when the Seattle Seahawks were fined and docked two future OTA practice meetings for engaging in "full contact practice", ie, they played with pads on.
A reduction in physical contact has been negotiated by the increasingly powerful players union over the years; presumably to decrease injury, lower workload, and extend the career earning potential of their members. But this is the NFL, where contact and regulated violence is king, and limiting the physicality of training and monitoring it in such a strict manner seems completely against the ethos and mentality of the sport. As a gridiron loving Brit, I spend a lot of time defending the sport's virtue from rugby fans who scoff at the level of padding and protection the players wear; but this nannying and timorousness is completely indefensibly stupid.
And yet, the irony is that all this is taking place at a time when there is a real issue for a union with the revelations surrounding concussions, and player health. More and more evidence is linking concussion blows with depression and health problems after players retire. Studies have shown that the equipment worn in the NFL is woefully inadequate to protect the head, yet the issue isn't resolved with the same gusto as a contract that looks a little light in guaranteed money. During the lockout last seasom, one of the real losers of the new collective bargaining agreement were ex-players, who arguably needed union help more than the players of today.
It won't surprise or shock anyone for me to conclude by saying that it's a sad indicator that one of the strongest and most powerful unions in America is driven by pure greed and the accumulation of money, but what really bothers me is the lack of critical media and public reaction to the greed. The apathy of the man on the street towards the rights of spoiled millionaires is quite baffling to anyone on this side of the Atlantic ocean.