The Millionaires v. the Billionaires

With the NFL’s contract set to expire on March 3, and rumors of a lockout gaining momentum, fans are not only wondering if there will be a 2011-12 football season, they’re already blaming the NLFPA (National Football League Players Association) for this predicament.  For whatever reason, it’s the players and their union who usually get blamed in these disputes.  Rarely do fans direct their hostility toward the owners.

Correspondingly, it’s amazing how many people still believe that professional athletes didn’t coalesce into labor unions until relatively recently—during the turbulent 1960s—and that these collectives were formed as a result of collusion between greedy sports agents, opportunistic lawyers, and militant athletes.

But sports unions have been around for over a century.  The Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players (note that “Baseball” was two words) was established way back in 1885, during Grover Cleveland’s first term as president.  Professional athletes formed their own union while this country was still in the horse and buggy era.  Indeed, the first Model T Ford wouldn’t roll off the assembly line for another 23 years.

There’s no shortage of myths about pro athletes, their wages, and their unions.  Here are three of the most common:

Myth #1:  These guys don’t need a union.

For openers, if they didn’t have a union, they wouldn’t have minimum salaries, defined pensions, guaranteed work rules, or grievance procedures.  They wouldn’t have these things because they wouldn’t have had the muscle to obtain them.  Professional athletes need a union for the same reason nurses, airline pilots and autoworkers need one.  Without a union, they’d be at the mercy of the owners.

And if you trust team ownership, you haven’t been paying attention.  In 1990, major league baseball’s owners were found guilty of collusion, a felony, and fined $280 million.  Team owners are sharp-eyed, hard-bitten businessmen, not sports dilettantes.  Just as defense contractors plunder the U.S. treasury while waving the American flag, team owners like to pretend they’re performing a public service rather than engaging in naked commerce.

Moreover, management’s argument that high salaries are a threat to “small market” teams is disingenuous.  First of all, where is it written that there should be an unlimited number of professional teams?  For 90 years major league baseball flourished with only 16 teams.  Secondly, why are those same free market fundamentalists who object to subsidies and regulations now worried that the Pittsburgh Pirates may face extinction?  It’s the inexorable Law of the Market, boys, and you can’t have it both ways.

Myth #2:  They make too much money.

In a perfect world, school teachers, social workers and existential poets would earn more money and wield more prestige than men who can hit a moving baseball or catch a football.  But it’s not a perfect world; and whether we like it or not, the entertainment industry (including music, TV, movies, professional sports) generates a staggering amount of revenue… billions and billions of dollars a year.

Which raises the question of who should get the lion’s share. Should it be those with the demonstrable talent, the skilled individuals who actually perform—the singers, actors and athletes—or should it be the parasites who cling to these talent people, who draw sustenance from them—the owners, studio executives and promoters?  Also, it’s worth noting that the majority of team owners became wealthy through inheritance.  These “jock-sniffers” (players’ derogatory slang for owners) bought their teams with daddy’s money.

Amazingly, pro athletes figured this out a long time ago.  In 1890, professional baseball players (most of whom were unsophisticated lads fresh off the farm) decided that they didn’t need to be owned.  Unsophisticated as they were, they were shrewd enough to realize that while there were many things a baseball team required—uniforms, a field to play on, teams to play against, spectators willing to pay, etc.—being owned by somebody wasn’t one of them.

Accordingly, they went ahead and formed what was called the Players League, consisting of eight teams owned and operated by the players themselves.  Besieged by threats and false promises, the PL lasted only one season (1890), but the establishment of this players’ co-opt was a revelatory moment in American labor history.

Myth #3:  High salaries are why tickets cost so much.

This is perhaps the silliest myth of all because it ignores a fundamental principle taught in Economics 101:  the law of supply and demand.  Team owners will charge as much as the market will bear.  Simple as that.

Does anyone really believe that team owners would charge less for tickets if their payroll were to suddenly shrink?  That these owners would willingly seek less money for tickets than what they already knew they could get?  Of course, they wouldn’t, and to think otherwise is absurd.  They would continue to charge all that the market will bear, regardless of team payrolls, because that’s the nature of commerce.

Also, who do you think leaks these exorbitant salary figures?  It’s not the players or their agents, who don’t necessarily want fans or other players to know their business.  It’s team management who publicizes them, hoping that John Q. Public will get angry at the greedy players instead of resenting the owners for raising ticket prices.  TV revenue and $1 a year stadium leases assure that no NFL team can lose money, which is why, despite their whining, NFL owners have steadfastly refused to open their books for inspection.

So with the current dispute being a battle between the millionaires and the billionaires, the choice of whom to support seems fairly obvious.  You support the people who matter, who actually contribute, who possess a demonstrable skill, who are, in fact, indispensable to the game.  You support the players.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on February 16th, 2011 at 12:17pm #

    sorry, i am vehemently opposed to any situation in which people wind up winners and losers. life calls for win-win result in all situations; maybe even in war in which everybody fires only i air! or maybe in generals’ heads! tnx

  2. hayate said on February 16th, 2011 at 9:06pm #

    When I see sports reflecting leftwing values instead of rightwing values, I’ll start to give a shit about them. Till then, my attitude remains:

    Kill the lot and let their gods sort it out.

    Figuratively, not literally, of course. Though giving the players and the management dull spoons and letting them work out their differences in an area before the fans couldn’t hurt…. ;D

  3. bozh said on February 17th, 2011 at 8:46am #

    yes, folks, sport may be deemed a fascist criminal enterprise. true, children r conditioned to glory in false glories in the same way as pavlov had conditioned the dog to evaluate sound of a bell as food; causing dog’s nervous system to produce saliva.

    i do not know whether pavlov reconditioned dog’s nervous system to its previous and natural condition. i think he did.

    now, if pavlov wld be alive, i hope he wld restore my natural-goddevil given nervous system.
    yes, we actually need to once again rearm selves with the knowledge of the monopolic devil-god and abandon forever god and devil duopoly.
    and turn the wrath of devilgod on those who only do devilry to us.

    i see no other way! tnx

  4. hayate said on February 17th, 2011 at 11:51pm #

    The Fight of Their Lives: All Out War on Workers’ Rights in Wisconsin!

    by Christopher Fons

    February 16, 2011

    “Republicans in Wisconsin, after a fresh set of tax giveaways to corporations and limits on liability in a special session of the legislature this week have decided to go for the whole bratwurst and devour all public sector unions in one big gulp. Fueled by worker distress, Tea Party bluster, and big corporate donors, the governors of New Jersey and Wisconsin are engaged in a kind of tailgating “competitive eating” contest to see which can be the most anti teacher and anti public employee. These governors are feeding at the trough of American angst created by the economic crisis, the bullhorns on Fox News and shout radio. Rollbacks of labor rights and cuts in health care for the poor and elderly are on offer for the red meat crowd that wants someone to pay for their own distress.”

    [http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=23254]

    First the guv worker unions, then all unions. Sieg heil to the union of ziofascism and fascism bringing this.

  5. hayate said on February 17th, 2011 at 11:54pm #

    Follow-up

    Wis. lawmakers flee state to block anti-union bill

    By SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press Scott Bauer, Associated Press – Thu Feb 17, 10:46 pm ET

    [http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110218/ap_on_re_us/us_wisconsin_budget_unions]

  6. hayate said on February 17th, 2011 at 11:59pm #

    Follow up 2

    The Wisconsin protests and the re-emergence of the American working class

    18 February 2011

    “Growing mass protests in Wisconsin involving tens of thousands of state workers, teachers, students and their supporters against sweeping attacks on working conditions and democratic rights mark a turning point in the political life of the United States and of the world.”

    [http://www.wsws.org/articles/2011/feb2011/pers-f18.shtml]