Why Does Slavery Keep Coming Up In the NFL?

Players looking for fan sympathy should not follow Leonard Weaver's lead

Yo, NFL players. I really want to take your side in this lockout thing. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I can’t support a club that would have Jerry Jones as a member. But you guys aren’t making it easy for me to back you up.

Case in point: The Eagles’ own Leonard Weaver, a talented fullback and one of the most likeable guys on the roster. The Philly sports nation shed a few collective tears when Weaver’s left knee bent in the wrong direction during a game last September. Three surgeries later, his career is likely over. In a way, Weaver now embodies some of the concerns that his fellow players have for their futures—what life after football will look like, and what might happen to them if their livelihood is taken away after one routine play. He seems like a smart dude. Might make a good spokesperson for the players as they compete with the NFL owners in a new game—winning the fans’ sympathies.

[SIGNUP]But if I were DeMaurice Smith, head of the decertified players union, I’d hold off on giving Weaver a public relations job. On Tuesday, in an interview with CSN Philly’s Derrick Gunn, Weaver had this message for the league’s owners: “We need to see some equal opportunity here and stop treating us basically like [Minnesota Vikings running back] Adrian Peterson said, like slaves.”

Whoa. To be fair, Weaver isn’t the first NFL athlete to compare pro football to the greatest shame in our nation’s history. In an interview with Yahoo, Peterson said, “It’s modern-day slavery, you know? People kind of laugh at that, but there are people working at regular jobs who get treated the same way, too.” Back in September, Washington Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth crafted a similarly ill-advised slavery metaphor for his refusal to play a different position after signing a $100 million deal. “Yeah, I signed the contract and got paid a lot of money,” he said, “but … that don’t mean I’m for sale or a slave or whatever.”

Or whatever. Right.

It didn’t take Weaver long to realize he’d made an error in suggesting that guys who get paid six to seven figures to play football are 21st-century, real-life Kunta Kintes. One day later, he apologized on both sports talk radio stations in town and on Twitter: ““I’m sorry for those words I used and if I offend anyone, please forgive me.” Weaver gets my respect for owning up to his bad judgment—though I’d bet Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall would disagree. “Anyone with knowledge of the slave trade and the NFL could say that these two parallel eachother [sic],” he Tweeted after Peterson’s comments lit up the Internet. Later he added, “The easiest thing for a person to do when they don’t understand something is to call it crazy.”

That may be true (and yes, dude, you are crazy). But in this case, the easiest thing for NFL players to do would be to shut up. The lockout isn’t about changing the sport from the ground up. The lockout isn’t about fixing the NCAA so student athletes who bring millions of dollars to their schools can get a piece of the pie (and yes, it’s time we drop the notion that a degree should be their reward for playing sports). And the lockout isn’t about race—even though, by my count, there’s one black owner in the league whose workforce is roughly 65 percent African-American. What the lockout is about is money. The rich guys who run the league want to keep more of it. The (mostly) rich guys who work for them don’t want to give any of it up.

At first, it seemed like the court of public opinion would rule in favor of the players—an open and shut case, with no deliberation. The owners cried poor while refusing to open their books. They want more games in an already long, grueling season, while at the same time, they try to sell the idea that player safety is their top concern. They’re not doing enough for retired athletes who are crippled, or for the families of those driven to early graves by the game.

Yet every time a football player brings slavery into the conversation, it reinforces the idea that today’s professional athletes live in an alternate universe. An unfair CBA doesn’t make you a slave, just like the risks you take on the playing field don’t make you a cop or a firefighter or a soldier in Afghanistan. And your workplace struggles look nothing like those of the average fan, the men and women who cheer for you every week as an escape from their “regular jobs,” as Peterson said.

So players, please. Enough with the populist appeals for sympathy, failed attempts to bond with the public and misguided slavery parallels. What the fans want is football on Sundays this fall. Do your part to make it happen and spend more time talking at the negotiation table than on Twitter. And don’t say something that’s going to make me throw away your jersey. I really can’t afford to buy a new one.