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