Adrian Peterson made national news Tuesday, but it wasn't for an award he had won or an appearance he was making to benefit a charity. It was the result of unfortunate comments he made to Yahoo! Sports, comparing playing football in the NFL to slavery.
In an interview with Yahoo! Sports, Peterson was asked about the ongoing work stoppage between the NFL and players. It was at that point that Peterson made the unfortunate comparison.
"It's modern-day slavery, you know?" Peterson said. "People kind of laugh at that, but there are people working at regular jobs who get treated the same way, too. With all the money, the owners are trying to get a different (higher) percentage and bring in more money. I understand that. These are business-minded people. Of course, this is what they are going to want to do. I understand that. It's how they got to where they are now. But, as players, we have to stand our ground and say, ‘Hey! Without us, there's no football.'
"There are so many different perspectives from different players and obviously we're not all on the same page. I don't know. I don't really see this going where we'll be without football for a long time. There's too much money lost for the owners. Eventually, I feel that we'll get something done."
If you took out the first couple of sentences of that quote, Peterson made perfect sense from the player perspective. However, playing the "slavery card" lost the point of everything else he said. For a player who has become one of the faces of the game and is one of the most bankable "brands" in the NFL, the comments were both unfortunate and taken in context.
When most unions butt heads with management, they do so as the tools that make the final product. Auto workers assemble cars, but the car is the product. In professional sports, human beings are the product being sold to the consumer. They come and go and even the best of them are replaced. Joe Montana didn't finish his career with the 49ers. Brett Favre didn't finish his career with Green Bay. The ownership of both teams felt they had better options for the good of the company and moved on. But so do the players.
The basis of the arguments between owners and players is unlike any that any professional sport has faced before. The information we are learning about the attitudes of those in charge of the medical well-being of players of decades gone by – and the long-held practice of league-paid medicos to deny disability claims made by former players who paved the road for the success the league has today – is a cross the league has to bear. At this point, it can't be argued. Too many brains have been autopsied and examined to deny the connection. However, for the current owners, this has become a matter of timing. Current owners are being asked to pay for the sins of the past. Reparations are owed to players, because, in the world of the NFL, if a player signs a five-year contract for $50 million and suffers a career-ending injury in the first year of the deal, he sees only the signing bonus and first year's base salary. Unfortunately, playing the "slavery card" doesn't speak to the problem or the solution.
For Peterson, who is due a base salary of more than $10 million for the six months he will be plying his craft if there is a full season in 2011, the accusation of poverty can't be made. A more fitting representative of the cause (although still not the "slavery" card) would be a player who was on the practice squad for a couple of years finally earning a roster spot and then tearing his knee. There are thousands of those types of guys whose only NFL claim to fame is bragging in a bar that they played for the Bengals. With his short-sighted comment, Peterson did more damage than good to the cause he is promoting.
The fact of the matter is that both the NFL and the players need each other to succeed. We won't see "scab" players – the NFL learned the hard way that fans don't want to see junior varsity football. The vast majority of players will never make the kind of money in other walks of life that they will earn in the NFL and most of them are aware of that. Even the backup quarterbacks that have become a staple of the ESPN analyst chair took a significant pay cut from their playing days. It's a rare opportunity to be so athletically gifted that an individual is good enough to play professional sports. It's hard to quantify the loss of long-term quality of life many players lose to achieve that stardom. It's still an issue that is in the genesis state of reliable, long-term data. Playing in the NFL is a risk that comes with a reward.
The impression many of us who cover football have received is that there is greed on both sides and fans aren't unanimously in either camp's side. Never has a sporting pie been so big ($9 billion annually) that two sides have been able to gorge at the table so heavily. The NFL has surpassed all the other major sports in terms of fan popularity and marketability. A regular-season prime-time football matchup can go head to head with a postseason baseball game and win in the ratings. This is an argument between millionaires and billionaires that the average football fan really can't identify with a side. There is a level of contempt against both sides, which has only added fuel to the fire with Peterson's "slavery" remark.
Those who have dealt with A.D. on a regular basis know that his comments weren't made under a deeply-held conviction against the owners. He's a combatant in the middle of a huge battle and made an unfortunate and presumably regrettable statement. Peterson is a genuinely nice guy and his "brand" has been damaged by the backlash of the remark he made. It's a hard line the players are trying to show the league, but invoking slavery is not the tactic to open the door of communication.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.