“The Replacements” a Marxist Reading of Anti-union Propaganda

Unions as they exist in America have always been contentious. Born out of the material needs of the workers to collectively exercise their power to access their rights, every victory won by a union carried a great deal of struggle if not blood.

This was also in no small part added by the rise and existence of the Soviet Union as a counterbalance to the west. Every thing that the Soviets guaranteed to their citizens that the Americans didn’t was an opportunity for communism to gain a foothold in the U.S.

But the days of Blair Mountain have long since passed and an unfortunate truth is that unions for a long time were thought to have been dying. There has been some resurgence in recent years with the rise of the Starbucks and Amazon union efforts and while those are commendable, time will tell how effective their pushes for workers rights will go.

With that in mind, some of the most notable and notorious unions are sports unions. The players are often seen as millionaires working for billionaires with little right to complain. This of course ignores the suffering of the players, the lack of protection many players have financially and physically, and most of all the reality that most players, don’t become superstars.

Of the biggest three sports in America the power of unions between them is extremely disparate. The Major League Baseball Player’s Union is considered by many to be unquestionably the strongest union in sports.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the weakest union and subject of the film “The Replacements” is the NFL Player’s Association.

American Football

Of the major sports in the United States, none really approach the sheer level of profit, not income, of the National Football League. As per Forbes the NFL brought in 18 Billion USD going into 2022/2023 season. By leaps and bounds it is the most lucrative sports league in America. But for the players, it’s a different story. The average NFL player isn’t Tom Brady or Lamar Jackson. The average player only lasts 3 years.

NFL Player Career averages
NFL Player Career averages Statista.

NFL players have few protections when cut from their team. Injuries can devastate players not just physically but financially and after they’re done playing they’re basically on their own for medical care. Pensions only amount to 43,000 USD which is a far cry from the millions some of the players will make.

Player can be traded at any point during the first 6 weeks of a season. Cut from their teams if they underperform. Franchise tagged if they don’t resign.

Workers in the NFL, most notably the players, are often treated as expendable and disposable. Players who prioritize themselves, whether with regards to health or finances are routinely maligned as selfish and greedy. This same critique never reaches the front offices. Owners never face the same level of scrutiny.

During the BLM protests, NFL players who took a knee faced not only public scrutiny but financial reprimands from owners.

Making it to the NFL is regarded by many as a privilege. In some respects it can be, but by that same token, it’s similar to a job were you have to intern unpaid for at minimum 3 years in college due to the nature of the NCAA. IN that time you are guaranteed no money. Many people who make it to the NFL aren’t from the best environments and their success is not because of their upbringing but in spite of it. The Replacements however, isn’t the story of how the NFL treats players as replaceable. Its the story of how they are.

A brief overview of the narrative

Gene Hackman opposite Keanu Reeves
Gene Hackman opposite Keanu Reeves.

Starring Keanu Reeves as a hotshot wash out QB Shane Falco, The Replacements is a from the word go, anti-player. The ways in which the players are framed: greedy, out of touch, malicious and manipulative. The film spares no expense in its over the top presentation of the players as prima donnas. It could be argued this is ham-fisted, but to create a story where strike breakers or “scabs” are the heroes, such portrayals are necessary.

The titular replacements are a quirky blend of a wide receiver who can’t catch, played by Orlando Jordan, a hearing impaired Tight End played by David Denman, and a host of other wash outs and has been players.

The Replacements despite all of their oddities, go on a winning streak during the course of the film. But, the owner played by Jack Warden makes a last minute deal to bring back their star QB Eddie Martel played by Brett Cullen. But the team doesn’t play as well with him and the film’s climax features the star quarterback of the Washington Sentinels being called out as having no heart as Keanu Reeves appears and wins the final game. This guaranteeing a playoff birth for their city and though they may have only been temporary, the replacement players showed that the they were real players after all.

Marxism and a definition of “scabs

Marxism is centered around the idea of creating a society where resources and opportunities are accessible to everyone, with the aim of eliminating inequality and exploitation caused by capitalism. This political and economic theory argues that the working class must lead a revolution to establish socialism, eventually leading to communism.

The concepts of class struggle, historical materialism, and the labor theory of value are central to Marxism. Karl Marx, a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, and revolutionary, is the originator of Marxism. The conflict between workers and owners is the core of this analytical lens, with the workers being disadvantaged in terms of capital and means of production.

The film accurately portrays the motivations of replacement players who had the opportunity to fulfill their American dream of playing for their hometown team, which was a pipe dream for many people, especially in the highly competitive NFL.

But, it is important to remember that as sympathetic as replacement workers can be, their role is to weaken the power of labor. If there are workers to replace you, it drives down the cost of your labor and thus while you may produce an unimaginable value for your bosses, you yourself are treated as a replaceable piece in the greater engine.

The plot of the film see the star QB Shane Falco of the titular “replacements”, in turn replaced by the two time Champion QB Eddie Martel and the audience is basically told to hate him for it. But not to hate him for breaking the strike, to hate him for being there when he was replaced.

This gives the game away as to the message of the film. The core of the film is players shouldn’t ask for anything and should be grateful for the handouts they’re given.

All players are replaceable

1987 players' strike
The 1987 players’ strike.

The film was inspired by the 1987 players’ strike, which occurred 13 years prior to the film. The strike was a complete and utter failure for the players, as strikes in general can be both ineffective and expensive if the owner class isn’t vulnerable to the loss of production. For athletes, striking effectively can be one of the more difficult tasks, as they are often the object of incredible envy and are maligned for any sort of exercise of bargaining power. Players exist in a super position of being the idol and the villain to millions and any complaint of mistreatment can and often is dismissed as whining from an overpaid prima-donna. The Replacements serves as film distillation of that sentiment. Stories like this serve not only to weaken the players’ resolve but also the resolve of workers in general.

Often, strikes come from one side asking for too much for too little, and that side just so happens to be the owners. Their interest as a class is not in raising the standard for the working class but to pay them as little as possible while extracting as much value as possible. This was the implicit and sometimes explicit goal of the NFL owners in the 1980s and remains true today. NFL players are routinely treated as disposable, with owners trying to extract as much value as possible from them while paying them as little as possible in a sport that is destructive to their bodies.

The film presents an interesting element in that no player is actually all that important. While he is the chief antagonist of the film, Martel, is presented as not all that good despite winning two Super Bowls. In the modern NFL, a quarterback winning one Super Bowl as a starter is, with rare exception, considered a star. Winning two Super Bowls as a quarterback is almost a guarantee to go into the Hall of Fame, the greatest compliment to a player’s career. With that in mind, the fact that Martel is treated as inferior to Falco is thematically coherent but, from the standpoint of anyone knowledgeable about football, an egregious claim.

The Replacement (2000)

Movies like The Replacements reflect the reality of the world in which players, being millionaire were and are still treated with contempt despite being the workers for billionaires who often escape any meaningful criticism.

In the film and in real life the players were never going to win against the owners. In the end, the workers, both replacement and contracted, are shown to be disposable. The owner is happy. After all, he and those like him are the winners.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. This movie was certainly funded by NFL owners.

  2. What a strange movie trying to act like players striking for better pay makes them greedy and selfish.

  3. Abdullah

    Could you imagine the mass chaos and hysteria that would ensue if individual players and whole teams crossed the picket line while the rest of the union members kept striking?

  4. It’s gunna happen again but this time the public will back the players and not the billionaires.

  5. Spencer

    Players lost the strike, because they gave up eventually. Like every other strike in history.

    • Sunni Rashad

      Hard to keep fighting when there’s no real way to force concessions from the owners and very little public support.

    • asdddsa

      Why blame the players? Why not the organizations using scabs.

      • Sunni Rashad

        Because they’re not on the side of the other works. They’re on the side of the owner who are harming workers. A scab weakens the power of labor by selling out the people who are in the same economic position i.e. workers.

  6. I dont understand how many people hate tha marxist political theory for a better world.

  7. For some reason this is one of my comfort movies. I mean, I did have a massive crush on Keanu Reeves in middle school (Speed days), but I think my love for this movie goes deeper.

  8. As a football fan I’ve been meaning to watch this movie forever. I’ll probably get to it tonight or tomorrow!

  9. patreik

    Oh yes, the NFL strike. I’m so happy that the ‘scab’ players finally got their Super Bowl rings after. Call ’em ‘Scabs’ all you want, those guys were just as integral to the Super Bowl-winning season that year. They won all 3 of their replacement games including the Monday Night upset in Dallas.

  10. At the time of the 1987 players’ strike, do you think that the USFL was thinking, maybe we should have stayed in business with a switch to a fall schedule?

  11. I don’t understand why the cheerleaders are also scabs.

  12. I don’t usually feel nostalgia for football; those days are long gone and I’m glad they’re behind me. But this film made me feel a certain type of way. I don’t know. Maybe things would’ve worked out better for me on the field in another life. Oof, or maybe I should’ve been replaced with a Jon Favreau-type and I could’ve focused on something other than that silly sport!

  13. Great article! Loved the read.

  14. I love this movie. Orlando Jones was at his prime in the 2000s. This, evolution, double take… oh the nostalgia.

  15. Bring on the scabs!!

  16. Esteban

    Attacks pro football players (and by extension all pro athletes) as entitled wimps for striking but never questions that the billionaire owners are in the right. For most pro athletes, especially in the NFL, careers are short and they aren’t the people who get endorsements. Is it a little ridiculous that professional athletes get paid as much as they do in the grand scheme of things? Yes. But the billionaire owners are way worse and at least the athletes provide something fans like.

  17. Calderon

    I feel like Marxism is more like socialism.

  18. Allegedly, one of my dad’s best friends actually played as part of the replacement team for the Washington team during the real life ‘87 NFL strike. But my dad’s friend is no Keanu. And I do not know if it’s true.

  19. Theodore

    This movie will forever be the best early morning, sunday scaries on TNT movie of all time.

  20. This movie is an underrated sports gem.

  21. Catherine

    I don’t care what folks say, The Replacements is 100% in the Keanu Reeves hall of fame.

  22. I love this classic even though it’s about Union busting 😭

  23. It’s a shame this movie stinks, I wish it would have launched the John Madden Cinematic Universe.

  24. Joseph Cernik

    An interesting take on a movie I enjoyed. I had the opportunity years ago to sit on the line at a practice for an NFL team. I remember watching a few tackles and the pounding players took as they quickly hit the ground. I kept wondering how they managed to get up and keep playing. Watching a player get tackled several yards away, was a view you never see from sitting in your living room watching a game or in stadium seats. It is understandable the average playing years are so short just based on what I watched as they were driven, basically, into the ground.

  25. Classic movie. Good memory from when I was young.

  26. Scabs suck, but this movie doesn’t.

  27. echoies

    This movie wants me to root for the scabs? No way.

  28. This movie has aged like a mayo sandwich left out in the sun, but it’ll always have a place in my heart.

  29. This movie seems like just a forgettable almost straight to DVD flick despite some big-name cast members, but this analysis is fascinating-and spot on.

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