Commentary

The year of dangerous lockout thinking

The backlash against the players in the NBA and NFL labor situations is misguided

Originally Published: July 14, 2011
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

A Basketball Courtesy of Thinkstockphoto.comThe owners took the game away, yet the public seems to be siding with them in the lockout.

This was forecast to be the Year of Labor, and it certainly has lived up to expectations. As grimly predicted, two of the four major sports leagues have shut down -- not because the players walked out on their game and, by extension, their fans, but because ownership decided to use its muscle to change its financial relationship with its players.

Neither the NFL nor NBA is up to anything new. The end of any collective bargaining agreement is an opportunity for ownership to gauge two questions. How much of the progress players have gained in the past decades can be effectively rolled back? And how strong (or weak) will the public's resistance be to the effort to roll that progress back?

The answer to the latter question right now is unequivocal: The public isn't offering resistance of any sort to the lockouts. The owners have shut down both games, yet the players are bearing the brunt of the public's scorn.

[+] EnlargeRoger Goodell
AP Photo/Alex BrandonRoger Goodell has never been pressured, at least by the public, to prove that the NFL is in dire financial straits.

Both leagues have set forth a specious conventional wisdom that is being swallowed whole by fans as the unassailable truth: The futures of basketball and football in their current forms are untenable. The players are earning too much money, and the owners are losing too much. Ownership must rewrite the rules of the game or pretty soon there won't be a game left.

The problem with that spin is that the owners have not provided any conclusive evidence, in court or to the public, that they are suffering losses widespread enough to justify closing down an entire league. And although individual teams might be operating in the red, the owners have not proved that those losses are the byproduct of the players' share of revenue or that they aren't the result of simple bad management on the part of bad owners.

Yet the public has not demanded accountability from those responsible for shutting down the game. Fans have not demanded that NBA owners explain how the game's positive indicators (good ratings for the Finals, huge popularity, strong teams in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Miami, plus new excitement in New York) equate to money-losing franchises. Nor have they demanded that the NFL provide data to explain how its supposed insolvency exists despite increased television ratings, higher cable fees and unprecedented appeal.

There is a fundamental difference between not making enough money and actually losing it. All the NBA has truly demonstrated is the utopian business desire to guarantee profits.

This, then, is not only the Year of Labor. It's also the Year of Dangerous Thinking.

The dangerous thinking follows two paths. The first is the notion that professional athletes are just common folk, employees like you and me, and thus do not have even a limited partnership in the big business of professional sports. The second is that the owners are the parties taking all of the financial risk.

It's not inaccurate to connect those mindsets to the broader anti-union, anti-worker mood running strong across the nation. Instead of employing a greater skepticism that might lead to more accountability from "the establishment," much of the public seems to be siding with it, and turning against anyone -- individual or group -- willing to stand up to it. It was a curious attitude during the crisis involving the "Too Big To Fail" financial institutions largely responsible for the downward-spiraling economy, and it doesn't seem like a stretch to draw a rough parallel to the big business of professional sports.

Bryants In a nation in which many cringe at the sounds and sights of socialism, fans are comfortable with capping salaries for players when few (if any) other non-government jobs place limits on an American's earning power.

In sports, there are numerous explanations for why the public might resent the players. They range from simple jealousy of their athletic talent and the fabulous good fortune and lifestyles such talent has afforded them to the lack of accountability, respect and perspective some players appear to have for fans -- the very people whose interest in them gives their talent value in the first place. (If fans weren't willing to pay $5,000 for a season-ticket package and $10 for watery beer, being able to dunk a basketball would have about as much value as hitting a Wiffle ball. ) It's an easy assumption for fans to blame player salaries for the skyrocketing costs of attending a game, even if ticket-price increases don't necessarily correlate to payroll.

To many, the professional athlete living in a wonderland with his guaranteed millions, golden skills, and general unaccountability on and off the court often does not cut a sympathetic figure.

Let's look in greater detail at these two lines of dangerous and disturbing thinking.

1. Players are not partners with owners.

The idea that professional athletes are not partners in the multibillion-dollar enterprise that is professional sports but merely employees with no rights to the financial records of the league, no rights to protect, and no recourse but to shut up and play is one of the more glaring examples of the anti-player resentment that curiously pervades sport. In a nation in which many cringe at the sounds and sights of socialism, fans are comfortable with capping salaries for players when few (if any) other nongovernment jobs place limits on an American's earning power.

[+] EnlargeEd Rubbert
Nate Fine/Getty ImagesThe history of sports has taught us that replacement players don't work. Otherwise, 1987 Redskins replacement QB Ed Rubbert might be a household name.

The players should be considered partners with management for one simple reason: The public has proved unequivocally that it will not support replacement players. In earlier work stoppages, baseball and football both tried to bring in people off the street to keep the games alive. The replacements had above-average talents that were nonetheless far below the world-class athletic standard fans were accustomed to watching, and the efforts failed miserably.

The NBA is welcome to scour the D-League to replace Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, but it knows better than to try. The talent of the professional athlete separates him from the average American employee. It gives him power the rest of us do not have.

Sports ownership, as in virtually all businesses, would love nothing more than to replace its workers with lower-paid substitutes, but the talent of the professional athlete means it cannot. People are willing to pay to see Michael Jordan and Dwight Howard, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, nothing less. To maintain a viable league, ownership must negotiate with the game's best players. That makes partners of those players. There is no other way.

2. Owners have all the control because they, and not the players, take 100 percent of the financial risk.

When it comes to sports, the owners of franchises -- so many of whom would describe themselves as archetypical American "self-made men" -- seem to prefer a form of socialism. They share revenue, cap salaries and demand government subsidies.

The NBA, spearheaded by David Stern, has shut down its game over the concept of "cost certainty," which is another way of saying it wants each and every owner, from the Celtics' Wyc Grousbeck to the Clippers' Donald T. Sterling, to be able to wake up in the morning and not have to worry about earning power. At the expense of his players, Stern wants guaranteed profits for his owners.

Sports fans are easily enraged by guaranteed contracts given to players. They discourage effort, goes the thinking, and are the reason cited when fans perceive that an athlete isn't playing hard. Yet Stern wants his owners to run their teams essentially risk-free, which would give them virtually no incentive to improve their performances. No commissioner has been more brazen than Stern on this point.

And yet, one of the prevailing narratives in sports is that it is the players who don't play hard enough to satisfy a hardworking public.

David Stern
AP Photo/Mary AltafferDavid Stern is after cost certainty for NBA owners. But wouldn't that be a disincentive for them to try to win?

While Stern seeks guaranteed profits, he continues (or allows the public to do it for him) to espouse the patently false narrative that ownership takes 100 percent of the financial risk of owning a team.

But there is an entity that takes a far bigger risk than the owners, and that entity is you, the public, the taxpayers. Team owners across all sports play in publicly financed, heavily subsidized facilities built at the expense of better bridges, youth baseball fields and basketball courts, highway lighting, and, yes, schools. Governments fearful the hometown team eventually will leave use the argument that the hundreds of millions it costs to build the stadium that will keep the franchise local do not come out of school or infrastructure budgets. In Washington, a common argument was that the redevelopment money that went to the Nationals (more than 95 percent of Nationals Park is financed by the public) never would have gone toward schools, but that is nonsense. Money can be allocated toward whatever project claims priority. Governments make laws. Governments change laws.

In 2006, the New York Yankees issued $1.2 billion in bonds that were exempt from state or federal taxes to begin building the new Yankee Stadium. The public, not the Yankees, took the risk, paying out $1.3 billion in public money. According to the Columbia Economics Review, the Yankees saved $786.8 million by not paying certain taxes on their new stadium, and New York City effectively forfeited $416.6 million in property taxes on the stadium.

The same is true for recently built stadiums for the Mets, and for the NFL's New York Jets and Giants. The San Francisco Giants and their privately financed AT&T Park are an exception.

Yet in the blogosphere and comment pages, the loudest voices are often the ones defending owners whose greatest victories are not on-the-field or on-the-court championships but rather securing risk-free deals from the public. And the resentments toward the labor force -- and by extension unions and employees -- are being expressed in terms that suggest the hard-won rights of the players, such as guaranteed contracts and free agency, can and should be summarily rescinded by management.

The owners of professional sports teams take fewer risks than, say, the small-business owner who opens a bakery or a coffee shop. When Starbuck's moves in to the neighborhood, the American mom-and-pop shop does not receive a lucrative expansion fee or a piece of the expanded pie through revenue sharing with the competition -- as the NFL does at the rate of 60 percent of revenues. Those owners take a risk no owner in today's sporting game ever has to take: They compete, or they lose.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.

MORE COMMENTARY