Some see the description "Marxist" as an anachronism. Certainly much has changed in the world since the times of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

Capitalism – the object of their study – has evolved strikingly from the socio-economic order they sought to understand in the nineteenth century. Yet we are constantly reminded of the fruitfulness of their key analytical tools: class, exploitation and profits.

We find these tools useful in some of the most unlikely places, as demonstrated by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. Writing on the Journal’s refreshingly eccentric sports page, author Matthew Futterman tackles the political economy of the National Football League (The NFL’s $1 Billion Game of Chicken (2-17-11). Futterman states: "The League has run out of new ways new ways to make another quick $1 billion, so its turning its focus to the biggest piggy bank of all: its own players." Within the next two weeks, the player contract expires and NFL management will likely lock out – call a management strike on – the players and their union.

Futterman adds that behind this threatened lockout is "a notion that’s familiar to investors, but that represents a radical notion in professional sports: the idea that a sports league, like a giant company, must show steady growth over time. And more radically, a slowdown in the rate of growth, even without actual losses, is sufficient grounds to ask labor to make concessions." In other words, professional football is a giant monopoly business with its own unique expressions of class, labor exploitation and profit accumulation.

Of course this backdrop of social confrontation and the drive for greater profits is not readily apparent to the average fan. Professional football occupies a special place in US culture. On one hand, it postures as a "pure" sport with great athletes – athletes bred, trained and motivated for most of their young lives – competing in a brutally violent game. On the other hand, it is presented as capturing the US ethos: overwhelming power, domination, confident cockiness, as well as respect for authority and unquestioning patriotism. Unmistakably, this representation is a profoundly conservative ethos.

But as Futterman’s candor shows, the NFL is far more than this popular image. From tickets to television, from media noise to gear, from advertising to fantasy football, the NFL both occupies a huge chunk of US cultural life and stands as a profit-generating behemoth.

It is this last aspect that draws little attention. Even less attention is given to the conflict between owners and workers, especially the players.

Between 2000 and the 2010 season, revenues have grown from about $4 billion to $9 billon. While every NFL team is highly profitable, owners view their protected franchises – their teams – as their major source of wealth. Just as stock market investors have come to place equity value over dividend return, team owners are most interested in seeing their team’s worth grow. For example, the NY Jets were purchased in 2000 for $635 million. Ten years later, another comparable franchise – the Miami Dolphins – sold for $1.1 billion.

The explosion of revenue in the NFL has come from several inter-connected sources. From 1993 to 2005 NFL owners extorted massive public funding for new stadiums. By threatening to move franchises, team owners and compliant city and regional officials have contrived a massive public welfare program for the benefit of the wealthy owners; the WSJ estimates that public subsidies averaged $500 million per year over the 13-year span.

Thanks to brand new stadiums with not-too-subtle class divisions (end-zone seats vs. luxury sky boxes), ticket revenues exploded, doubling between 1997 and 2007. Today, the average ticket costs $76 per game. It’s an unspoken truth that most season ticket holders are far removed from the working class who largely follow their team from in front of their television sets.

But competing media conglomerates have been the most kind to the NFL owners. Media rights to NFL broadcasts and properties have jumped from $2.6 billion annually in 2005 to $3.8 billion in 2010.

One might think that the NFL team owners would be quite satisfied with their lofty financial achievements, but like all capitalists they have an unquenchable thirst to accumulate. But as Futterman cogently puts it, they are looking for new ways to "make a quick $1 billion…" With new stadiums built and steadfast resistance to further subsidies on the part of the public, the team owners have turned away from the public troughs. With ticket prices sky high, they are afraid of squeezing fans further. And media contracts will increase only modestly over the next three years.

Therefore, owners are turning to the tried-and-true, centuries-old capitalist tactic: increase labor productivity by reducing wages and increasing the workload. They hope to add two more games per season to increase revenue. Thus, players will work 1/8th more for the same salaries. Standing in the way of this intensification of the owners’ exploitation of the players is their union’s resistance. Consequently, the lockout threatens to cancel the next season and pressure the players’ ability to earn a living.

As much as fans admire NFL players, they show little sympathy for their economic plight. Attention to the mega-salaries of superstars blinds them to the facts of an NFL career. The average median salary of an NFL player in 2009 was $770,000. But the average career lasts only 3 years, giving the average player a lifetime earning of $2 million plus from the NFL. Most players come from modest backgrounds and, unlike autoworkers or plumbers, have devoted fully 10 previous years of intense, competitive training without compensation beyond athletic scholarships.

Thus, a 24-year-old average NFL retiree has earned well under $200,000 a year over his career, leaving his job often with debilitating injuries and little skill for any later opportunities. The media-hyped splendor of the super-star masks the far less glamorous status of the NFL’s ordinary player. Clearly, a lost season for players who only average three productive years is a powerful economic blow.

So, yes, players are workers, though unusually well paid for a brief time, and workers with their own unique advantages and difficulties. Players, like most fans, have drunk the cultural kool-aid that elevates all NFL players to elite status. The players don’t want to be seen as workers, but neither do many other well paid professionals or craftsmen for that matter.

For those of us who are consumers of the players’ product – fans – we need to take sides in a struggle between admittedly well-off players and the handful of mega-rich owners who seek to get more for less from their employees. In the end, that is the central question of Marxist and scientific socialist theory: exploitation. Exploitation defines class position as well as the distribution of the surplus, in this case NFL earnings.

Unfortunately, the market determines the consumer’s place in this arguably decadent and politically numbing exercise in primitivism and violence – we lose a bit of our souls every Sunday in the fall. And our dollars combine to generate the $9 billion that the owners are so greedily striving to stuff into their pockets. But behind our shared football mania is an exploitative socio-economic system, just as ancient slavery stood behind the entertainments of the Roman circuses and the encounters of gladiators.

The lesson here is not that we should drop all activities to organize huge rallies in support of the small number of NFL professionals who are exploited by their employees, though there is much that we can easily do to show our solidarity with them. We certainly have more urgent priorities in supporting the public employees in the class war now raging in Wisconsin and breaking out in numerous other states. The living standards of all government employees –federal, state and local – as well as their union rights are under assault from many quarters, an assault that presages further attacks upon all workers.

Instead, we must recognize that the Marxist notion of class – employees versus employers – trumps all other notions that divide workers by strata, job description, race, gender or nationality. It is "class," as Marxists understand it, which serves as a basis for unity, and not some bogus unity forged from artificial ties with fickle friends in bourgeois politics or opportunistic, tenuous common interests. Those loose ties maybe be useful and even tactically desirable, but not at the expense of class partisanship.

A healthy sign of this class solidarity is the recent open letter from several current and former members of the Green Bay Packers professional football team urging support for Wisconsin’s embattled public workers. Is it an accident that they played for the only publicly owned team in the National Football League?

February 23, 2011