rich people in unions: basketball, hegel and the triumph of industry over sport

First, my apologies to God’s country and the home state, Wisconsin. You got crapped on with a winter storm in the first full week of November. That’s not cool. (Not at all; it’s downright cold. rimshot, please!) Say goodbye to the curbs until April.


“To present that in the context of ‘take it or leave it,’ in our view, that is not good faith. Instead of treating the players like partners, they’re treating them like plantation workers.” — National Basketball Association players’ union attorney Jeffrey Kessler, 8 November 2011. [courtesy]

No one at the bargaining table during this NBA lockout seems to be very interested in anything but completely immolating professional basketball in America. We’ve already seen the usual cards deployed: class warfare rhetoric, the solidarity stance, the melodramatic walk outs, the public posturing and now we have the obligatory hyperbolic and incendiary workers-as-slave labor piece.

We should have seen our first full week of regular season games this past week. Coming off two solid rebound years rife with on-court drama, exciting postseasons and legitimately compelling personalities on the court, the natural follow-up was to engage in labor negotiations that are making Gary Bettman look like a management-labor relationship guru. Long story short: the primary concerns of many franchise owners–the businesses and investments which got them where they are now–imploded with the recession, leaving many of them over-extended just in time for the collective bargaining agreement–last struck in 2000 after another partial-season work stoppage–to expire. Partially to save their own hides and partially to even up the revenue playing field, owners locked out the players to strike a more fair percentage of revenue sharing.

First, and briefly, it is worthy to note that, in situations where there is a management-organized labor dichotomy, the right of owners to lockout is as valid as the players’ right to strike. I’m not in any way justifying the actions of owners by saying this, but it cannot be fair for one side to hold out without extending the same privilege to the other. Secondarily, where typical American business labor is organized and there is a singular management entity, professional sports are different: instead of an entity, we have 30 management entities represented by a commissioner; management entities who are located in different parts of the country who are all differently affected by the still-rippling aftereffects of the economic implosion. Getting a fair deal between players and management is one thing; getting a fair deal for the owners is something completely different (and not in a John Cleese kind of way, either.) Numerous reports have surfaced regarding dissatisfaction amongst small-market owners with the varied proposals put forth at the table. If compromise is where everyone leaves in agreement but not pleased, then this is going to be something worse by fiat.

The slavery comment by Kessler brings to mind something else altogether: what business do millionaires who otherwise operate as independent contractors have being in organized labor in the first place?

Slaves never made it rain, nor did they ever have to worry about feeding their families, as Latrell Sprewell famously said, on hundreds of thousands of dollars. These are athletes–regardless of how grand or scant the salary is for either Kobe Bryant or the resident pine-rider–quite well-compensated for their skill with regard to bouncing a ball and successfully putting it through a hoop. And they are certainly entitled to be compensated for the quality with which they do their work according to what the market will bear. In many of their first paychecks, they will have been able to repay what college costs they didn’t have to pay for in the first place thanks to scholarships (and boosters, and agents, et al.) In their first full season, many of them will become part of that wretched and reprobate part of the citizenry known now to us as the 1%. And yet we are expected to take their side because they take up the mantle of labor!

Having experienced business students and jocks alike in my experience in college life, and having worked with privileged peers and clueless superiors alike in my various occupations growing up, it does not necessarily seem a stretch to say that the sharpest tools are likely not at the table, nor is anyone negotiating with the best interest of all involved, nor is anyone looking out for the best basketball or the suckers known as ticket holders and fans. Promotion or advancement is often a race to the bottom and is most infrequently a meritocracy. Labor negotiations are brutal and inflammatory affairs, having taken Hegel’s dialectic and swallowed it thoughtlessly and wholesale, they expect to beat the crap out of each other, bomb the other side into submission, starve them out or otherwise apply the submission move.

It’s like the Great War, but with even less rationale. How on earth do we ever properly divide millions of dollars? I know there are thousands of people in the places from where many of these athletes grew up who could think of a few ways. Crap, I know of a few ways I could use 10,000. Or $10.

The reality of the matter is that, as I see it, professional athletes really don’t need the union, in the same way that unions have largely outlived their utility. Many of the protections fought for post-Industrial Revolution have been attained through legislation and mutual compromises between management and labor. (The concept of Labor Day, typically seen as a day the blue-collar workers can spike the football and do the Ickey Woods Shuffle, apologies for borrowing from another sport that needlessly suffered through labor strife during its last offseason, was designed by all sides involved, as a 2009 report on APM’s Marketplace so aptly pointed out, on a day when no one pays attention to business news.) And of all the people who do not need the fictitious or perceived benefits of organized labor are people who are, on average, paid $5.15M for at most nine months of actual work. If they don’t have a good accountant or aren’t good stewards of their money, why should they get a pass on our quickness as a fickle public to wield the sword of Damocles when we give /facepalms to the owners of professional sports franchises who are equally inept or unfortunate with their money? (See the Brothers Maloof, McCourt, Frank, Wilpon, Fred, et al.) Squandered money is squandered money, regardless if you’re Sprewell or MC Hammer or Michael Larson.

So, now that the last checks have been cut for players and a deadline for a less-than-desirable offer looms, the NBA has dumped oil all over itself and has the Zippo at the ready. A century ago, 50 years ago, we would have thought this madness. Today, it’s workers’ rights.

What, exactly, is the difference?


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