The NFL lockout of official referees has been temporarily suspended until the union votes to ratify a contract that basically works out in favor of the union. This is remarkable for many reasons, and upon a closer look, gives real insight into American society and its current values and priorities.
As a former NYC junior high school special education teacher for thirteen years, it was mandatory to be part of the United Federation of Teachers. Under the leadership of Randi Weingarten, throughout my brief teaching career there were several contract expirations and subsequent dialogue and dispute over new contracts. I remember those contract negotiations vividly and will never forget them. The outcomes of over those contracts is part and parcel why I left the profession, and why quality teachers in the United States will never be treated with the respect they deserve.
To begin with, as a city employee, it is illegal to strike for any cause, especially as a tactic for contract negotiation. For every day of a strike, until its conclusion, a teacher must pay back to the city two days worth of salary. Any gains under such a punitive system are quickly lost as the days pile up and prove very costly. Most teachers who are veterans did not want to give up such a large sum of their meager salaries. This allowed Mayor Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg and any future mayors to have an ace in the hole in terms of negotiations.
That is why the teachers’ contracts were negotiated unfairly, and why the mayors never bent. They offered two percent raises and then demanded longer working hours. The last time I checked, if one works more, one gets paid more. That is not a raise. A raise is more pay for the same work. Each and every contract the mayors of New York squeezed one week more into the work schedule on the way to year round teaching and school year. Again that is more work for less pay, not a raise. And if you are of the thinking that a teacher is entitled to too much vacation, then you should try your hand at babysitting and educating other people’s children while being responsible for their academic and personal success and growth for ten months. Most people would be laughed out of the classroom in severe fits of a nervous breakdown in less than a month.
It is true that there are bad teachers. In any large workforce, there is excellence and the bottom of the barrel. But a system that rewards good test scores is not the solution. Just ask any teacher the number of variables and parameters that exist that contribute to a particular student’s success or failure. If even fifty percent of these factors were within a singular teacher’s control, the student might as well as be eligible for surrogate adoption.
The cost of living in NYC is as the market dictates and that is utterly ridiculous for a lower or middle class working family. Starting teachers who earn $40,000 simply cannot pay rent in Manhattan, let alone parts of affluent, hip Brooklyn and Queens. These teachers, as did I, needed second jobs, and summer jobs to make ends meet, pay rent, and pay down vast student loans. The Mayor wants hard working people to drive the buses and trains, work the restaurants and cabs, offer services at the dry cleaners, bodegas and retail shops, but actually live in the city where they work, well that’s on them to figure out.
The city wants qualified teachers but does not want to pay accordingly. The education of a child is a zero sum gain in the ledgers of the accountants. In other words, tax money down the drain.
And so I have been following another strike quite closely, the most recent work stoppage in Chicago. The Mayor of Chicago has tried guerilla tactics and slander to put down that union, but the union did not back down. They had a real leader and a fighter who threw it back in his face, and rallied the teachers to do the unthinkable, walk out. Eight extra days of the parents having to deal with their own kids past their organized plans and schedules and that was enough to at least come to the bargaining table in good faith. Ridiculous Merit pay was ostensibly taken off the table. The teachers did not get what they should have, but certainly more than if they didn’t strike and stand up for themselves. Most importantly they maintained their integrity and self worth.
Detractors and angry parents called teachers selfish, and not mindful of the children. If they were informed and read the actual terms of the contract and what the union was fighting for, it is always about the children. The truth is these parents could not stand babysitting their own anxious children and downplay the importance and roles of the teachers who take their children day in and day out for ten months out of the year. “You get what you pay for.”
Which brings us back to the NFL, a multi-billion dollar industry, who thought they could bully a small referee’s union by locking them out and bringing replacement referees. They thought the product and brand would not suffer much. But it did, over 40 games of questionable calls culminating in a Monday night debacle in Seattle costing Green Bay a loss. The NFL image was being tarnished, and even the President expressed concern. The fans were getting upset, but not enough to stop watching mind you. One could argue that ratings went up during the added controversy, but the league could no longer claim they cared about the integrity of the game and player safety. Everyone could see on a Monday night how two faced the NFL was. And so due to public pressure and a few coaches’ fines, the league quickly negotiated a deal in most part in favor of the referees, and life goes on.
The question remains, why didn’t this happen during my teaching tenure or most recently in Chicago? The answer is not simple, but let’s start with the obvious; sports is more important in this country than education. From college to the pros, the gladiator phenomenon still holds true. Perform in an athletic arena and become a demi-god, a hero. A hero compared to troops in Afghanistan? Or a fireman? Even a teacher? The hypocrisy is maddening. If an NFL player uses drugs or gets in trouble with the law, he gets second, third and even fourth chances, as long as he can still ball and help his team win. Sports fans will pay almost any amount of money for season tickets, merchandise, etc. If your team wins, then somehow you are a winner too, as well as the community and the city. The revenues generated for the city is in the millions of dollars as well, as new stadium deals are struck every year partly funded by city tax dollars. So that’s what they mean when they speak about the integrity of the game.
But a new computer lab in a forgotten school tucked away on 120th and first avenue with low reading scores? Please. Who is a fan of that? Who is a fan of education, or investing in our future as a society, investing in the lives of those who are struggling and need all the support to get on track and become productive members of society? Nothing against Michael Vick, but mastermind a dog-fighting ring, no problem, as long as he can still light it up on MNF. In Brooklyn, there are many schools in need of renovation and resources, but what gets built, The Barclay Center, because a year round venue where Nets and Jay Z tickets can be purchased is the priority.
NBA millionaires vs. billionaires? Lost 25% of the season. Who really cared? Big problem for fans? Stop watching. But fans can’t, and don’t want too. Athletic prowess is more valuable and entertaining than academic ability, and as long as the pay scales dictate so, the U.S. will continue to lag other nations in math and science, and overall education for decades to come. Should highly paid athletes get paid lots of money? Market dictates yes. But should A-Rod get $10,000. per swing while a teacher can’t pay rent in the place where he/she works? There’s something definitely wrong with the value system here.
Here’s a plan. How about investing in the best talent out of colleges for teachers who in turn after being properly groomed under a Master/Apprentice relationship become masters (the best teachers they can be) thereby maximizing the success of more and more students in the public education system churning out more intelligent socially adjusted young adults who will become leaders for future society. And let’s do that by offering as competitive a salary as to other fields. Say like sports? Only hire and nurture the top and pay them accordingly.
Until society realizes that the potential for the United States to be great still exists in its youth and infrastructure, not in its athletes and professional sports leagues, we will remain an under-developing, under-achieving, nation of idiots staring at a bright future in the distance, unable to grasp at any global success or return to what this country once was, a superpower, a great nation, a place where people work hard and dreams can come true for all.