Hard Day’s Work: The Super Bowl and the Working Class

As we hurtle towards Super Bowl Sunday the Rust Belt cities of Pittsburgh (where I live) and Green Bay, Wisconsin are gearing up for a showdown between two of the smallest market teams in the NFL which also boast the two most devoted fan bases in the country.  Both cities have lost the industries that made them famous, but each continues to stand for everything that we think of as working class.  Pittsburgh, known for its steel mills, rivers, and bridges, has its own section under the entry for “Blue Collar Worker” on Wikipedia.  And Green Bay, known for its meat packing industry, boasts the oldest professional football team in the US, which in turn has the awesome distinction of being cooperatively owned by the denizens of Green Bay.  Next to the socialist tendencies of profit sharing (as Bill Maher recently argued), The Green Bay Packers might be the closest thing the NFL has to bonafide socialism.

Dozens of articles leading up to Sunday’s game have paid homage to the blue-collar pedigrees of Green Bay and Pittsburgh.  Some have focused on the cities’ working-class food, matching up Brats and Beer Cheese Soup from Green Bay against Iron City Beer and pirogies and the giant sandwiches made by The Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh. According to Primanti Brothers lore, the high stacked meat sandwiches, filled with coleslaw, french fries, and tomatoes, were created to fill the bellies of Pittsburgh’s working men in the 1930s.

Others have focused on the names of the teams;  no other teams in the NFL have names that relate so directly to the kind of work that was done in the region that the teams represent.  In 1919, a Green Bay employee of the Indian (meat) Packing Company, Curly Lambeau, asked his employer for some money for jerseys and some practice space for a football team.  The company agreed on the condition that he name the team after the company.  Curly’s team joined the precursor to the NFL, the American Professional Football Association, in 1921, and, as you have already guessed, in 1957 Curly had a football stadium, Lambeau Field, named after him.

As for the history of the Steelers, they were originally named the Pittsburgh Pirates when they were founded by Art Rooney in 1933.  They became the Steelers in 1940 when fans were asked to send in their ideas for a team name.  Ironically, the Steelers got their logo from Republic Steel of Cleveland (home of their hated rivals, The Cleveland Browns) when the company proposed that the Steelers use the Steelmark, three diamonds with inverted, curved edges in yellow, orange, and blue—which was also used by the American Iron and Steel Institute—as the team’s new logo.  It has been the Steeler’s logo since 1962.

Interestingly, then, both the Packers and the Steelers were branded by corporations.  But we have mostly forgotten this fact—and now we simply associate the teams with the laborers that worked as meat packers and steel workers.

Though dozens of journalists have been willing to recognize, and even celebrate, the working-class pride that the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers represent, in this lead up to the Super Bowl no one has dared to suggest that NFL players might, in fact, themselves be working class.  This is an especially important point to raise right now, when the NFL labor negotiation deadline is just over a month away (March 3), and while both players and owners are talking tough.

Owners are asking players to take a salary cut and to add two more games to their already long 16 week season.  Pittsburgh Steelers veteran receiver Hines Ward told the press on Super Bowl Media Day that if the owners want 18 games (in order to sell more tickets) then the NFL does not really care about injuries to players: “To say the league really cares? They don’t give a f— about concussions,” Hines Ward said. “And now they want to add on two extra games? Are you kidding? Come on, let’s be real. Now that these new guidelines are in place, you’ll see more and more guys lying to doctors to stay on the field.”

The player’s union knows that it is hard to drum up sympathy for athletes whom most of us perceive as highly paid superstars, so the NFL Player Association has been making its case to Congress.  Recently Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth explained that “if there’s a lockout, he, his wife and newborn baby would lose their health insurance.”  Ward also made two great concrete suggestions:  why not give football players health insurance for life, and use the fines levied against players who hit too hard  for the care of veterans who are suffering from football related disabilities?

So what’s the reality?  Do all NFL players make millions of dollars for years upon end?  The statistics might surprise you.  The average NFL career lasts 3 seasons, due to the high rate of brain and leg injuries.  The median salary in the NFL in 2009 was $770,000.  While that might seem like a ton-o-cash, factor in a 35% tax rate, and 6% to the agent.  Now factor in a college education that was not completed or which was poorly attended to.  And this:  78% of all NFL players are bankrupt within two years of the leaving the league.

So this Sunday, whether you are munching on Polish sausage or pierogies, chew on this.  78% of the men suited up in black and green and gold will be bankrupt in the next 5-10 years.  They will be replaced by younger models, who will be encouraged to play even more aggressively, while at the same time threatened with fines totaling in the hundreds of thousands when they do.  They will be coming out of college earlier, with less schooling, and less guidance about what to do with their money during the brief period of time in which it is flowing.  It seems too outrageous to be true, but those of us watching our storied teams do epic battle this Sunday, whether we be plumbers or professors, likely face a more secure economic future than the chiseled, wild-haired, hard-hitting football players that so beautifully represent out Rust Belt pride.

Kathy M. Newman

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27 Responses to Hard Day’s Work: The Super Bowl and the Working Class

  1. I enjoyed being reminded of the blue roots of these cities’ teams. Prior to my reading, I was thinking “Football players: blue collar; you must be joking.” But after reading the scary statistics projecting the majority of football players’ dismal futures, the parallel does exist. Like most working class people, the players hard work (which is so profitable for the industries that cut their pay checks) is sadly, not proportional to the benefits the industry provides them in return.

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  2. This article provides many insights regarding the way the media presents the working class. One of the comments I find most interesting is that journalists celebrate the working class pride of the teams but carefully avoid saying that the players are themselves working class. This dichotomy is everywhere — President Obama mentioned his working class roots and those of the speaker of the house in his State of the Union address, but obviously both men are now annointed members of the ruling elite.
    I find this a curious phenomenon. It seems that people like to pay homage to their working class roots because it suggests that certain desirable values have been instilled in them (honesty, good work ethic, etc.), but do not want to be associated with the working class because it suggests that they are not successful in their careers.

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  3. michael lisi says:

    Interesting that Youngstown, with it’s long, rich football tradition never had a team in the fledgling NFL. With cities like Hartford, Frankfort, Toledo, Tonawanda and Duluth having squads, it’s surprising that Youngstown never threw it’s hat in the ring.

    Having lived in Wisconsin for a time, the only passion I’ve ever seen anything like the love and respect of Packer fans would be that of Youngstown area fans for high school football. Unconditional.

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  4. Dave P. says:

    Interesting post, Kathy. One quibble: I would not rely too heavily on the 78% figure. As far as I can tell, it has come from one source, a former Packer who now runs a non-profit. The statistic, as I originally saw it quoted, was this:

    In fact, 78% of all NFL players are divorced, bankrupt or unemployed two years after leaving the game, according to Ken Ruettgers, a former player and current advocate for NFL players transitioning from professional sports.

    Three years later, it got misinterpreted and widely distributed via a Sports Illustrated article as:

    By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.

    This is not to say that former pro football players don’t struggle in many cases, but I don’t believe the “78% going bankrupt” stat.

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  5. Dr. Goose says:

    Ms. Newman,

    Thanks very much for this insightful and thought-provoking post. I wonder though, if the football players of today would not be more comparable to the gladiators of old than the working class of today?

    Best regards,

    Dr. Goose

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  6. Pip says:

    Well said. I sum it this way: The NFL wants the players to work more for less money, does that sound familiar to you?

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  7. katy says:

    I’ve spent a lot of time supporting collegiate football players academically and have been disheartened by the way they are denied opportunities to be students. I’m glad, Kathy, that you bring to light the realities of the earnings potential for NFL players. I constantly think about the students who don’t cut it, who go from being D1 college superstars to working in factories to pay the bills…the reality for most scholarship football players of working class backgrounds is that they aren’t able to pursue and truly earn an academic degree. I think our entire system, starting from pony football leagues, abuses and takes advantage of the athletes.

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  8. Emily Klein says:

    Thanks for this incisive piece, Kathy. I’d be curious to know how race plays into these two working class histories, too. As Pittsburgh transplants to Birmingham, AL we’ll be watching the game today in the shadow of the Vulcan, our new city’s monument to its own deeply raced and working class steel industry history.

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  9. Lindsay says:

    Really interesting post! As a southerner, I had no idea of the history behind the Packers and the Steelers. We live in a football town, though, and often see what happens to NFL players a few years after retirement. Too often, it’s not good. It’s sad and disturbing to see the lengths they’ll go to in order to keep playing.

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  10. Verity says:

    Insightful and thought-provoking! I had no idea the rate of bankruptcy is so high for retired players; they deserve better.

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  11. Kurt says:

    I thought this article was somewhat apropos: a local (Pittsburgh) steel mill warned its workers not to skip off work for the Super Bowl:

    http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/blog/shutdown_corner/post/Pittsburgh-steelworkers-warned-not-to-skip-work-?urn=nfl-317048

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  12. Thora says:

    Thanks for this, Kathy. You articulate something I had felt but not actually thought through. As the issue of head injuries has come out in the media–and gets incorporated into Toyota commercials–the scopophilic pleasure implicit in the slomo replays of players getting hurt has been on my mind.

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  13. Eric K. says:

    Thanks for this article, Kathy. I’ve long found it interesting that these two “small-market” teams have such disproportionately large actual fan bases, albeit for somewhat different reasons–the Steelers mostly thanks to the West Pennsylvania diaspora of the last quarter of the 20th century, the Packers in large part due to their representation of a large swath of industrial-town territory comprising much of the upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions–but both teams for their colorful histories. Only the Raiders and the Cowboys have the same kind of popularity outside their own regions (though not this year, ha ha). I’m glad you reminded people of these teams’ interesting attitudes toward team ownership (in the case of Green Bay) and long-term loyalty toward team employees (w/r/t the Steelers). Would that all teams be so forward-thinking in those regards!

    And would that the game’s next Super Bowl host, Indianapolis–near where I now live–have a more enlightened attitude toward their hotel employees. Resistance to the demands of unions (or even to the very idea of organizing unions) among hospitality industry workers has been a longstanding issue in Indianapolis, a very Republican-leaning, “right-to-work” city, but which draws a large percentage of its tourist dollars from sporting events, including the NBA and the Final Four tournament and other NCAA events, but also–especially over the past decade–the NFL. I hope that the spotlight of next year’s game will shine on these labor problems, as well as the more positive aspects, of Indianapolis. Again, thanks for a good article, Kathy!

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  14. Ann Panush says:

    The information in this piece is cause for reflection, not only on the working class origins of the teams but also the public perception of pro athletes versus the reality of their futures. It was a fascinating article which I was hooked on from beginning to end. Ann

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  15. Brenda says:

    fascinating expose of the history of these teams and timely discussion touching on the exploitation of athletes which should be discussed more in the mainstream media.

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    • Molly says:

      Great discussion of the issue of economic security in the seemingly glamorous lives of footballers. And I love how you connect this to the origins of each team’s labor-conscious names and starts! The bankrupt stat is truly remarkable and –in addition to how injury rates rise as the season progresses–immediately reframed the issue for me. As someone who is not compelled much by football, I was thoroughly engrossed in your labor rights analysis of it!

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  16. Phil Kidd says:

    Great piece. On a similar but slightly different topic focus:

    It would be interesting to see research which examines the economic impact that a strong football rivalry has within the Rust Belt (willingness to relocate to a “rival” city for college or work / retention of regional talent migration…ex. Chicago vs. Wisconsin, Cleveland vs. Pittsburgh, Cleveland vs. Cincinnati, Indianapolis vs. Buffalo).

    I grew up in the Pittsburgh area and now live in Youngstown, OH. Since as far back as I can remember and from every conceivable angle (family, social circles, high school class room) the notion that Cleveland was an undesirable city (“mistake on the lake”) was consistently reinforced. Most (if not all) was derived by strong emotional ties to the Steelers. This is a cultural aspect that is broad and deep in both cities / the region and can’t be denied as having some impact in the way citizens of both areas of the region view each other.

    It took me several years to come to terms with the completely silly, (sub)conscious guilt of being ok with “liking” the city of Cleveland and I believe a great deal of that had to do with my physical relocation to a place in the middle of these two cities as well as my profession. I might be somewhat of an anomaly. For instance, Google the Facebook Group titled “National Punch an Annoying Steelers Fan Day” which was started by fans of the Cleveland Browns. While this appears fun and harmless on the surface, the page contains over 76, 131 fans and much of the posting criticism is directed more toward the people or communities of teams vs. team performance itself (or that the team’s success or failure is a representation of the people or communities themselves).

    Perhaps I’m making more of this than needs to be, however, I think it’s very much an interesting if not relevant topic worth researching to see if, in fact, the strong sports culture that exists in the Rust Belt has any negative meaningful impact on the region beyond bragging rights each year.

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  17. Susan says:

    rI loved Kathy’ fair and thoughtful commentary. Now, which team has the most working class ticketholders? I know that Green Bay tickets are held by many working class families that have been passed down for generations…

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  18. Amy says:

    It really is hard to feel “sorry” for NFL players. But this morning I read in USA Today (of all places) that CBS (which has contracts with the NFL) refuses to air the commercial made by the player’s union! That got me thinking that NFL players have quite a bit in common with other “blue collar” workers. Thanks to Kathy Newman for exploring this idea in such depth!

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  20. Ivana Krajcinovic says:

    The National Football League Player’s Association (NFLPA) has recently shown its solidarity with mainstream labor when Indianapolis Colts star Jeff Saturday and DeMaurice Smith, Executive Director of the NFLPA sent letters to the CEOs of three major hotel companies—Hyatt, Starwood, and Host—expressing concern over the treatment of workers in non-union hotels in downtown Indianapolis.

    The letters affirm the NFLPA’s support for hotel workers organizing in Indianapolis, who are among the lowest paid hotel workers in America. The letters state, “we believe that working people deserve living wages, dignity, respect and freedom to organize without employer intimidation.” Additionally, they warn that “the NFL Combine in Indianapolis fills many hotel rooms, and we will do business with hotel companies that treat employees with fairness and respect.”

    The letters come after years of controversy surrounding labor disputes at the Westin, Hyatt Regency and the Sheraton Keystone Indianapolis, where workers have requested a fair process to choose whether or not to form a union in an environment free of intimidation. The hotels have refused to honor that request.

    It’s not often you see professional athletes siding with low wage service sector workers. In addition, the NFLPA has been reaching out to the labor movement for help in its current contract battle. Nothing like an attack on basic issues like health and safety to remind us why we built the House of Labor in the first place.

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  21. J. Entin says:

    This is a terrific piece: thank you! It’s rare to find commentary on the politics and social implications of sports, especially on issues of class, and this gives me a lot to think about. I knew football careers were short, but I didn’t know the economic payoff of those careers for most players were so bleak (“78% of all NFL players are bankrupt within two years of the leaving the league”!). I also assume that many players suffer horribly as they age from all kinds of debilitating physical and indeed mental injuries, caused by the intensity and violence of the professional game, recently brought to light in the public discussion of concussions and the inadequacy of helmets. Thanks again, Kathy!

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  22. Paul Kobulnicky says:

    Just came across this humorously relevant piece in the WSJ (humorous in the Journal??? Go figure.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703445904576118351939464860.html?mod=WSJ_article_MoreIn_Life%26Culture

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  23. Kurt says:

    I’m really taken with the observations here regarding the two teams’ industrial roots–right down to the naming and the logos. Regardless of who wins it, this Super Bowl really is the victory du jour for the Rust Belt. When people talk about how Pittsburgh and other regional cities have “rebounded” after the industrial sunset, they usually cite things like Pittsburgh’s being a “city of hospitals and universities.” But Kathy here makes a strong case that we ought to cite the professional sports industry as one upon which the Rust Belt economy has become partly based. I mean, the Post-Gazette ran an article a few weeks ago asserting that having the AFC Championship game here would pump a whopping nineteen million dollars into the regional economy. That’s not chump change.

    http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11018/1118761-28.stm

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  24. Buzz says:

    I find it difficult to have sympathy for the players suffering bankruptcies. They have been given many advantages due to their superior athletic abilities, and many have not had the proper guidance (or ignored it) to look beyond a career with inherent longevity issues.
    First and foremost, it would be nice to see a college degree be a requirement to play pro sports. If athletes knew this, it would certainly put school in a new perspective for them. Perhaps with said education, the individual would be better prepared to understand life’s ‘Big Picture’, and that his 2, 3, or even 10 year career is but a blip in his or her lifetime. They would also be in a much better position to contribute to society once pro sports in no longer an option.
    Obviously, while I am a big sports fan (Go Eagles!), the reverence bestowed on our pro athletes is disturbing. It’s just a game!

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  25. Derrick says:

    You probably saw two articles in the NYTimes today about the Steelers–one about the Rooneys, and another about Steelers’ center Legursky. Both tell different stories about how the Steelers cultivate labor looking at the long term, starting small and building. This captures for me how labor’s approach often differs from management, which often (feels that it) has to go for quick fixes. The Rooneys are exceptionally successful managers because they’ve resisted that to adopt a player-centered (worker-centered) approach. Would that more corporations and banks did so!

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  26. Paul Kobulnicky says:

    McKeesport native, blue collar parents and in-laws, who moved from W. Penna for the first time at age 49. After a brief vacation living in New England I am back in Steeler Nation.
    This is a topic that is so full of important points about the intersection between working class and all forms of upward mobility that one would hardly know where to stop. But, since you are focusing on the Superbowl teams let me simply say that their styles of play are (1) old fashion and conservative as are the cultures, even today, of these communities and decidedly not “West Coast” anything, (2) represented and praised by their fans as “smashmouth”, the mastery of brawn over brains [while this is decidedly not true in practice see this piece from the NYTimes on how difficult the Steeler defense is to master : http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/sports/football/01linebackers.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=steeler%20linebackers&st=cse ] and (3) “family” oriented in that neither team will tolerate players who cannot or will not play “team” based football and both teams are managed in a “we are family” style that is similar to working class culture.

    I also find it ironic that all of my friends from the ‘burgh who worked hard to move beyond their working class origins revert back in the instant that a yellow towel is waved and I can only assume the same is true for the green and gold. We should try to get some response from folks in Green Bay.

    Paul

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