Charles Woodson jumped in. Both feet. Up to his shoulder pads and helmet.
"Last week I was proud when many of my current and former teammates announced their support for the working families fighting for their rights in Wisconsin," Woodson said. "Today I am honored to join with them. Thousands of dedicated Wisconsin public workers provide vital services for Wisconsin citizens. They are the teachers, nurses and child care workers who take care of us and our families. These hardworking people are under an unprecedented attack to take away their basic rights to have a voice and collectively bargain at work.
|Super Bowl champion Charles Woodson is the first big name to support unions, but he might not be the last. (AP)|
And so the first big name in sports dove into the Wisconsin protest fray. One union backing another, both realizing a critical reality: 2011 is going to be the year of reckoning for all unions. Everywhere. In every walk of life. Sports will be no different.
I can say with certainty that NFL union officials are watching the union landscape carefully. In Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio, newly elected lawmakers are trying to curtail the powers of unions. The players association is considering getting involved in some of these fights by using player popularity to help boost public support for unions.
Woodson's statement is part of this strategy (his statement was released by the players association, not by the Packers). There's some risk for Woodson speaking out. He's a huge figure in the NFL, a possible Hall of Fame player, and though he'll receive backing for his stance from workers throughout the state, if the protests get ugly, Woodson's name is now officially attached to them.
But he doesn't seem to care because as a union team representative, Woodson understands just how brutal this battle is getting and will become. Every sports union is watching Wisconsin and other potential union battlegrounds. Every NFL owner, too. Both NFL labor and management are wondering the same thing. If the backs of Wisconsin's unions are shattered, can sports unions eventually be broken as well?
By all accounts, the power of unions -- their future, potentially their very existence -- could be determined by what's happening across the country now and in the coming months. The NFL is in a protracted battle with its union. The NBA will be. The NHL and MLB unions are weaker than ever before.
This is why Wisconsin is so important to the players association. Wisconsin in many ways is the Tunisia of the U.S. labor protests, and athletes are getting involved. It won't just be Woodson. You could soon hear other high profile NFL players from all over the country back Wisconsin. Woodson opened the door. More might follow.
None of this is to say that a rich athlete deserves the same kind of sympathy or support as a teacher making $30,000 a year. Yet the collective bargaining process is where the wealthy player and the nurse share a common bond.
Collective bargaining is what has made athletes super rich and the middle class super secure.
The New York Times reported last month that union membership in 2010 slipped to 11.9 percent, the lowest rate in more than 70 years.
If the unions are dying a slow death, they won't go quietly. And you're going to hear a lot more athletes like Woodson emerge.