Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sports Labor

One of the four billion things that confuses me about sports fans in this country is why people get so upset with "millionaire athletes" and how "overpaid" athletes in this country are. They get terribly upset about the "greed" of athletes striking or holding out and yet they rarely, if ever, criticize the equally, if not more, greedy owners. It's weird to me that organized labor in this country's history was looked upon so rosily as recent as a generation ago except the great-grandchildren of the generation that died, literally DIED, for your right to get a lunch break, get a decent wage, and not have to shit yourself is looked at so negatively as athlete's salaries rise.

Consider this: while most of the people reading MY blog know about Curt Flood and what he represents, many still don't. Curt Flood was a baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1970s. This was a time when something called the Reserve Clause essentially indentured athletes to their owners. There was no such thing as free agency. An athlete could either sign with the team that owned him, or not play at all (which is what Dodgers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale tried in the early 1960s). This gave the owners (historically remembered as one of the worst collective groups of greedy, racist, conglomerates of the twentieth century) absolute power over their employees. After Flood refused a trade in which he did not approve of, with the help of frontier attorney Marvin Miller, Flood changed the landscape of professional sports forever, at the same time ending his career and ruining his public image for years. Today, Flood is remembered as an ahead-of-his-time soldier who sacrificed his career for the rights of those to follow.

However, after Flood, two things happened simultaneously, and somewhat symbiotically: athletes' salaries exponentially climbed to retarded levels and sports in this country went past mainstream and became a multi-trillion dollar a year business. No one, and this is a goddamned fact, no one has profited more in the last twenty years than the owners and CEOs. To illustrate this, at this current moment, it would be easy to argue that Lebron is the most visible athlete in the country. He produces movies, he stars in the league, he does endorsements for every market, and his own brand may be one of the more recognizable on the planet. It's easy to understand the millions of fans who would be off-put by seeing this kind of heavy-hitter as a part of a union that next year is threatening to strike over a new CBA. It is really hard to pay 140 dollars for shoes, 250 dollars for a ticket, and then see the guy jockeying for more by denying the fans the right to see him. I understand that, but understand this: Lebron's net worth is somewhere near 200 million dollars. A lot, but the owner of the Cavs, the guy that cuts Lebron his paycheck, Dan Gilbert is estimated to be worth near 500 million dollars. And then this: Phil Knight, the co-owner of Nike who also cuts Lebron a sizable check, is worth about 9.8 BILLION and is Forbes' 30th richest man in the country. (still 10 billion behind Blazers owner Paul Allen)

So my point is that while it's easy to target greedy athletes during labor struggles, how come no one points to the greedy owners (even though history tells us that in retrospect, we will). This trend works best in football where many fans consider football the best sport because of the incredibly rigid salary cap which supposedly creates an even playing field and the much desired "parity" of play. In football, contracts are NOT guaranteed which means that if a player shows up out of shape or ages quicker than expected, he can be cut and replaced with a much cheaper option. On paper, this looks great for the fans. And at first glance, it is; I mean, we're the ones shelling out retarded ticket prices and laboring through countless commercial breaks to pay these players, they SHOULD show up. The common fan thinks "If I showed up to work unable to do my job, I would certainly get fired." However, they're ignoring two things:

1. Their job doesn't consist of getting the ever-loving shit kicked out of you for 7 months a year leading to post-football health problems, risking serious, VERY serious injury on a day-to-day basis, and the lack of any decent pension programs for the thousands of ex-players who now have to work manual labor because of their lack of education, injuries, or other circumstances.

2. When an owner cuts a high-priced player for a lower-priced option, USUALLY, and I know this isn't always the case, but usually, the higher-priced option was a better player that simply cost too much, and do you think that money saved is used to cut ticket prices or show less commercials? Of course not, that money is funneled back into the league's revenue sharing program and spent on horseshit promotions or short-term investments that benefit all thirty-two of the league's owners.

And furthermore, football is NOT the league with parity. Look at the current season: right now there are SIX teams with winning %s less than .200. Baseball has three teams under .400!!!!! How can you call that parity? There is the belief that the salary cap is what is responsible for the "any given Sunday" phenomenon; the belief that on any given Sunday any team can win, although that is less true in football than ANY OTHER PROFFESSIONAL OR AMATEUR SPORT. Rigid salary caps don't promote parity, or hard work, they put more money in the hands of the league and the owners, and are in DIRECT contrast with the ideals of the US labor movement.

Which brings me back to my original point: why are we taught in history class the triumphs of Samuel Gompers and John L. Lewis, but not Curt Flood? Why do we watch films like The Inheritance in schools, a film that teaches us that it is our inheritance from our parents and grandparents that we have workers' rights, and fair pay BECAUSE they fought, and FUCKING DIED, for us, but we view players strikes as examples of greedy players wanting more? No, I am not comparing the plight of those stuck in Sinclair's Jungle with Latrell Sprewell, and I don't think that their working conditions are terrible. What I am saying is that workers, even if those workers are paid large sums of money in either guaranteed or non-guaranteed contracts have the right to unite and fight just like those before them. And I just think that it's weird that we view the owners in such sympathetic light despite their greed, exploitation, and drive to make the sports more profitable (see: the NFL) at any cost.


Webmaster said...


jk MG, but seriously, get me a Pasta Pack at Zeppes.

MSD said...

Good read Matt... and you didn't even get into owners pillaging tax dollars to build new stadiums/arenas for their profits. The situation with the Sonics/Thunder move makes Modell look like a Hall of Famer.