George Will: Corporations Have A Constitutional Right To Exploit Workers — Unless They Play Football

In a column last week, conservative pundit and global warming denier made an uncharacteristic display of compassion for professional football players, explaining how the changing nature of the sport endangers players’ long term health:

Football is bigger than ever, in several senses. Bear Bryant’s 1966 undefeated Alabama team had only 19 players who weighed more than 200 pounds. The heaviest weighed 223. The linemen averaged 194. The quarterback weighed 177. Today, many high school teams are much bigger. In 1980, only three NFL players weighed 300 or more pounds. In 2011, according to pro-football-reference.com, there were 352, including three 350-pounders. Thirty-one of the NFL’s 32 offensive lines averaged more than 300.

Various unsurprising studies indicate high early mortality rates among linemen resulting from cardiovascular disease. For all players who play five or more years, life expectancy is less than 60; for linemen it is much less. . . . [A]ccumulating evidence about new understandings of the human body — the brain, especially, but not exclusively — compel the conclusion that football is a mistake because the body is not built to absorb, and cannot be adequately modified by training or protected by equipment to absorb, the game’s kinetic energies.

Will is right to raise these concerns as all workers have a right to a safe working environment. The fact that NFL players are both well-compensated and often national celebrities does not deprive them of this basic human right.

It’s just too bad Will doesn’t recognize this basic right with respect to nearly any other worker.

Last year, Will published a column calling the Supreme Court’s 1905 anti-worker decision in Lochner v. New Yorkcorrectly decided.” Lochner is widely viewed, along with Supreme Court decisions upholding segregation or Japanese detention camps, as one of the worst court decisions in American history. Even Robert Bork, the failed Reagan Supreme Court nominee who once described the federal ban on whites-only lunch counters as “unsurpassed ugliness,” accepts that Lochner is an abomination.

The crux of the Lochner opinion is that elected officials cannot be trusted to enact laws protecting the health, safety or general well-being of workers, and so any law directed at improving working conditions must be viewed with a very skeptical eye by judges. Lochner struck down a New York law preventing bakeries from overworking their employees, but the decision placed any pro-worker law at the mercy of one of the most conservative Supreme Courts in American history.

So Will’s compassion for NFL players rings more than a little hollow in light of his willingness to declare most laws protecting workers from exploitation — likely including overtime laws, minimum wage laws and many workplace safety laws — unconstitutional.