FOOTBALL over the long, long Thanksgiving weekend was not, mercifully, dominated by stories about Terrell Owens. There were recaps, of course, and the TV people seemed reluctant to let go of what had been a very good thing for a very long time. T.O. (such is Owens' celebrity that he is known by his initials alone which are even recognized by Google) gave good copy. He knocked his own teammates, coaches, team, and organization with the kind of shrill arrogance that plays so well on television. He was the Howard Dean of SportsCenter. (Didn't someone once famously say that television is a "cool medium?") When T.O. spoke--or ranted--ESPN listened.
When the Philadelphia Eagles finally struck back, it was with a kind of ponderous certainty. Enough was enough. Owens was no longer worth the aggravation. Great player; rotten employee. The Eagles suspended Owens for four games, without pay, and benched ("deactivated" in the bureaucratic locutions) him for the rest of the season. It was also plain that he would be released by the team before he could collect several million dollars in "bonus" money that he was still owed.
THE SQUABBLE now became one of those events that keep columnists, talk show hosts, and professional busybodies . . . well, busy. Jesse Jackson, unsurprisingly, got into the act on Owens's side as though it were another case of raw oppression by The Man. The NFL Player's association supported Owens' in a grievance hearing before an arbitrator and for days, the sports media--to include blogs and call-in shows--were obsessed with the story.
The Germans did better at Versailles than Owens did at his hearing. The arbitrator backed the Eagles all the way down the line. The best the union could do was to swear vengeance against him when his term expires. That man, the union vowed, will never arbitrate again.
Cold comfort to Owens and his agent.
Football fans, no matter how they felt about Owens, were no doubt relieved to get the overall discussion back onto important questions like whether or not the Colts have the defense to go all the way. Owens, as they say, is history, which the media defines as yesterday's story.
STILL . . . a theme seems to lurk behind all the headlines and supercharged talk. Forget Owens and his unappealing personality, his feud with his quarterback, the issues of team morale, and questions about the Eagles' way of playing financial hardball with players. Consider the T.O. affair as a union struggle.
While Owens' ordeal does not inspire one to strike up a chorus of "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," there was a serious labor / management element to the whole business.
And labor lost.
This came not very long after the baseball players association--the toughest of all the sports unions--caved on steroids. And there have been other recent setbacks. The hockey players who went on strike were routed and lost an entire NHL season. Professional basketball players were told by their NBA bosses that they had to dress nice when in public. There were murmurings of dissent and the predictable charges of racism. But no picket lines, no work stoppages, and no slowdowns during fast breaks. The players appeared, meekly, in appropriate dress.
The culture of sports supposedly reflects the society. That, anyway, is the media line. Violence in sports? Look at society. Drugs in sports? Ditto. Gambling? Likewise. So, maybe the loss of union muscle in sports mirrors what is going on in the larger world. Unions win when the people are behind them and they are losing the public. Fans are fed up with overpaid, underperforming, preening wide-outs who are incapable of contributing to a cause larger than themselves because they are unaware that there is any cause larger than themselves. And they are, likewise, not sympathetic to the plight of pilots who fly for airlines that are loosing millions of dollars daily but who resist pay cuts even when some of them earn more than the CEO of the company. Consumers have not been moved to action by the plight of Delphi employees who may no longer be paid to stay home and cut the grass. GM's plan to cut 30,000 gold-plated jobs has not inspired a great wave of sympathetic support for the UAW.
All unions have, increasingly, come to resemble those in sports in that they exist to get--and protect--lavish deals for a privileged few. So when there is conflict between labor and management, most of us figure that we do not have a dog in the fight. Unions once struggled to gain entry for their members into the economic mainstream. Good wages meant a larger middle class and that was good for everyone. (This was Henry Ford's insight.) These days, unions strive to protect their members from the realities of the marketplace. This, at the expense of the rest of us who, after all, pay for the cushy medical benefits that GM workers have come to expect and which few of us enjoy. We just assume we'll have to meet the deductibles and make co-pays and don't understand why putting rivets in Chevrolets should make one exempt.
Not too long ago, it was easy--not to say, instinctive--to sympathize with talented athletes who were told "take it or leave it," by owners who offered them cheapskate contracts and colluded to keep players from selling their skills in the open market. The players associations changed that and the games--contrary to the predictions of owners and some others--did not roll back their eyes and die. In fact they got better and everyone prospered. The unions were good for the game; just as the industrial unions were good, once, for the economy.
When those are the stakes, the unions win. When they fight for special deals for a pampered few, they will lose public support and, eventually, the battle itself.
Somebody needs to tell the school teachers this before it is their turn.
Geoffrey Norman writes for a number of publications including the Wall Street Journal and THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His most recent article there was on nuclear power in Vermont, where he lives.