The National Football League had its way with Marshawn Lynch this week, reportedly threatening to fine the Seattle Seahawks running back $500,000 if he didn't speak to reporters. This is just one more in a series of incidents in which the league has threatened players with disproportionate penalties for minor offenses, or invented rules on the fly. Whatever one makes of Mr. Lynch's refusal to speak with the media, the league's latest display of chest-puffing shows that the time has come. The NBA, NHL, and MLB all have players unions. Why not the NFL?
Since the league's inception in 1920, NFL players have worked without a union. Consequently, Commissioner Roger Goodell and current team owners, like those who came before them, have been able to push these players around, taking a majority of revenues and denying them basic workplace rights. Not only can NFL players be fined huge sums simply for speaking their minds, in most cases they have no recourse should an owner simply decide to tear up their contract.
Unionization will not be an easy or simple thing, but players must consider this option. Too many of the game's obvious maladies could be solved through the basic act of bringing players together as a collective bargaining unit and negotiating for the fundamental benefits American workers in similar fields take for granted, like quality health care, guaranteed contracts, reliable pensions, and agreed-upon procedures for settling disputes between workers and managers.
As we saw with the handling of the Ray Rice case this year, league affairs appear to be run according to Mr. Goodell's arbitrary whims, with the rules being made up as he goes along. This isn't just bad for players; it's bad for the league. The NFL loses credibility when it's seen to merely drift along on the currents of public opinion.
If players had a union, they could negotiate a well-defined system with a clear disciplinary process and established penalties for different offenses, and also address issues such as player safety and the game's ever-changing rules, which have led to much controversy lately. That would be a clear win-win for players and owners.
The NFL is no longer a small company that fields part-time coal miners; it's a billion-dollar enterprise. Its employees should have a union so they can have a say in the terms of their employment and their workplace conditions, and so they can receive appropriate benefits both during their physically taxing careers and after they retire.
Update: The NFLPA has responded.