The average NFL fan can't identify too closely with NFL players — and certainly not NFL owners. But most fans know what it means to work and receive a paycheck, regardless of how little they get in comparison. That's what makes Adrian Peterson's comments so disturbing and disgusting, reinforcing the stereotypes of dumb jocks and pampered athletes.
Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings' All-Pro running back, told Yahoo! that playing in the league is like "modern-day slavery. People kind of laugh at that, but there are people working at regular jobs who get treated the same way, too," he said.
If Peterson was trying to make a case based on New York Times columnist William Rhoden's provocative book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, it was an epic failure. Rhoden used about 300 pages to lay out a nuanced case for invoking the word "slave," which is still a stretch.
Peterson used that painful imagery in a five-second sound bite, which was guaranteed to blow up in his face and damage public perception of players during their labor dispute with owners. The players' union decertified on March 11, and NFL owners instituted a lockout the next day, setting up a court battle that may determine if the NFL season will start as scheduled in September.
Though choosing sides is distasteful in a battle portrayed as "billionaires versus millionaires," it appears that players have a more righteous position. After all, it's the players who risk bodily harm and brain damage, and are often left with chronic pain and debilitating conditions for life. Not to mention that NFL players on average live about two decades less than typical Americans and have careers that average fewer than four seasons.
As for being millionaires, most players only spend as if they're at that level. While the average salary in 2009-2010 was $1.8 million, the majority of players earn far less. The median salary was about $790,000, and the rookie minimum was $320,000. When you subtract the first-draft picks and highly paid superstars and add the short shelf life of an NFL career, most players never collect even $1 million before they're out of the league.
This isn't to suggest that NFL players are sympathetic figures compared with the average American worker, who needs about eight years to make the equivalent of the rookie minimum. More than three-quarters of NFL players earn less than the NFL's average salary. More than half the players make less than a million dollars a year. As pointed out in a report on MSNBC, many players are just like the rest of us: living paycheck to paycheck.
Still, as much as a prolonged lockout might hurt players and owners, who are hassling over how to divvy up $9 billion in annual revenue, the trickle-down effect could be devastating to workers several income levels below. Teams have made plans to reduce salaries among coaches and other employees. And it appears that every team — except the New York Giants — has had the gall to demand season-ticket payments from fans, even though there's no guarantee of a season. Others who will be hurt include owners of and workers at sports bars, restaurants and football-related retailers, all of whom can expect a precipitous drop in revenue if games aren't played.
Peterson didn't think about the collateral damage when he made his "modern-day slavery" remark.
Then again, perhaps he wasn't thinking at all.
Deron Snyder, an award-winning journalist who covers sports, politics and pop culture, is a regular contributor to The Root. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.