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Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Updated: May 3, 2:31 PM ET
The blame game

By Howard Bryant
ESPN The Magazine

Matt Forte/Drew Brees/Ray Rice
Matt Forte, Drew Brees and Ray Rice all have unsettled contract issues.

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DURING THE HEIGHT of the Ozzie Guillen foot-in-mouth controversy, curiously few fans defended the manager's prerogative to speak his mind. Rather, many took the stance that his employer, the Miami Marlins, had every right to discipline him harshly for speaking in favor of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. "If I said something my boss didn't like," went a common attitude in the fan blogosphere, "I'd get fired immediately."

At nearly the same time, in a different sport, fans were also quick to take the side of management after New England, Baltimore, New Orleans and Chicago muscled the franchise tag on Wes Welker, Ray Rice, Drew Brees and Matt Forte. Never mind that the franchise tag is the most illegitimate rule in sports, forcing great players at the peak of their earning power to accept one-year deals. When the four players each protested the tag by refusing to attend the recent first round of offseason workouts -- which are voluntary workouts, mind you -- their actions were widely viewed as selfish and disloyal to the team-building cause.

Both episodes speak to a baffling reality about sports: In the hearts and minds of the public, the bosses rule. Fans are unsympathetic toward ball-playing millionaires, especially in a country saddled with unemployment and foreclosures. Players are the rich and privileged. They hit a ball with a stick. They score touchdowns. They do not trim hedges or fight fires. As salaries increase within the game while life grows more difficult for the paying customers, big money has always been the ultimate trump card against athlete grievances. Even though it's billionaire owners on the other end of any dispute, most fans accept that players should shut up and play. Or in the case of Guillen, shut up and manage.

This stance is particularly backward when it comes to Welker, Rice, Brees and Forte. Not only have they been great players for their clubs, they have been good NFL citizens. Welker blew out a knee in 2010 and returned to the field in a flash. Forte and Rice have been good teammates and durable. Brees is only the greatest QB the Saints have ever had. There's no questioning their dedication to football. Moreover, they are attempting to exert their leverage at a time when no games are being played. The fans' self-interest -- seeing their team have the best chance to win -- is not being threatened. In fact, players who use the offseason workout period to hold out, make a statement and attempt to negotiate a better contract are actually acting less selfishly than, say, someone who no-shows training camp.

Brees will eventually receive his deal, of course. Football is, after all, a quarterback's game. In a fair world, fans would be pulling hardest for Rice and Forte to win their contract disputes. As running backs, they play the most disposable position in pro sports; their careers, because of the high injury quotient, are truly year to year. Forte, in particular, is an apt case study of why an athlete holdout is often just and reasonable. At 26 years old, he has played four seasons, all with Chicago, and knows that the odds are increasingly against his continuing at a high level; studies show that running backs peak at 27. So now is the optimal time for Forte to push to be compensated for his talent -- both with money and the security of a long-term deal.

You'd better believe that the former Pro Bowler understands what is at stake. His Bears backfield mate, Marion Barber, recently retired. For six years with Dallas, Barber was one of the most physical backs in the game. In his fifth year, he rushed for 932 yards. In his sixth, he was down to 374. Dallas released him after the 2010 season, Chicago signed him, and after 11 games and 422 yards, Barber retired. He's done making money -- and he's just two years older than Forte. That's a scary thought, one that must make the prospect of a one-year deal, no matter how lucrative, seem like insanity.

Of course, fans who can't view the game from any perspective other than their own Sunday enjoyment argue that no one is forcing a person to play pro football. While this is true, playing sports shouldn't prohibit an athlete from standing up for himself, from trying to change the system and create a better, more equitable environment. Doing so, however, often requires holding out; it's the only leverage the players have. So instead of considering them greedy, fans should ask themselves one question: What would you do if it were your body on the line?

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