Last July, Major League Baseball blew an opportunity to make a difference. With 28 players who were either Hispanic or of Hispanic descent participating in the league’s annual All-Star Game in Phoenix, Arizona, and the eyes of the sports world watching, nary a one spoke out against the radical anti-immigration law Arizona had passed a year before, even though it could have directly affected the players and will directly affect many of their fans. “I ain’t Jackie Robinson,” David Ortiz, one of baseball’s biggest characters, said.
Over the next 10 days, the National Football League will have a similar chance to make a difference.
Just two weeks before Super Bowl XLVI kicks off at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis, more than 10,000 people marched through the city to protest right-to-work legislation that is being pushed through the state’s legislature. The legislation passed the state Senate this week and the state House today, and is backed by Gov. Mitch Daniels (R). Considering the NFL nearly lost its 2011 season, and Super Bowl XLVI with it, to a labor dispute, Indiana Republicans’ assault on workers is a cause the players should be familiar with.
Fortunately, there are signs that the NFL players aren’t going to repeat Major League Baseball’s mistake. Several players have spoken out against the legislation, and NFL Players Association President DeMaurice Smith said his organization is already taking action. “We’ve been on picket lines in Indianapolis already with hotel workers who were basically pushed to the point of breaking on the hotel rooms that they had to clean because they were not union workers,” Smith told the Nation. “We’ve been on picket lines in Boston and San Antonio. So, the idea of participating in a legal protest is something that we’ve done before.”
That’s a good first step. But it’s not enough. Indiana union officials are contemplating disrupting Super Bowl-related events to draw attention to their cause, clogging city streets and slowing down events around Lucas Oil Stadium (which was built and is maintained by union workers). Labor leaders are hesitant, though, fearing that such actions could give the city and their cause “a black eye” with people who think sports and politics don’t mix. If some of the league’s top players, particularly those participating in the Super Bowl, spoke in support of those efforts, however, that perception could change.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, one of the NFL’s most recognizable players, felt strongly enough about his own rights that he signed on as a plaintiff in the players’ antitrust lawsuit against the league last year. So did Logan Mankins, Brady’s teammate, and Osi Umenyiora, a prominent defensive end for the New York Giants. Those players were willing to risk backlash from the league, public scrutiny, and their own images to fight league owners for better benefits and wages. In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, they should do the same for workers who don’t have the luxury of multimillion-dollar contracts, rich endorsement deals, and the good fortune of playing a game for a living.
Sure, with Super Bowl week ahead of them, political causes may be the furthest thing from the minds of most players. But with thousands of reporters conducting hundreds of interviews before, during, and after the big game, the players will have the chance to stand up for the rights of people they should be fighting for. Unlike their counterparts in baseball, they shouldn’t blow it.