Saturday, June 18, 2011

Where the Players Own the Game

Will Leitch in the Atlantic identifies what the magazine thinks is one of the 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year (and by extension, the biggest idea in sports this past year):
The world of sports is able to exist because it treats its labor unlike any other business on Earth. If you are an accountant, a librarian, a car salesman, whatever, when you receive an offer from anyone in the world for your services, you are able to take it. You can work anywhere, for whatever wage you’re able to grab. If this happened in sports, the result would be chaos: every team’s roster would turn over every year, and all the talent would be concentrated on two or three teams (even more than it already is). So much of a sport’s appeal is in the illusion of team history and continuity; unbridled free agency would destroy that illusion. For all the talk of supposed “rich and spoiled athletes,” few other industries can get away with labor practices that essentially amount to high-paid indentured servitude for the players.  
LeBron’s example marks an evolution in athlete culture, one in which players realize their power. You’re seeing this everywhere now, from the NFL and NBA labor battles to the better understanding of concussions and athlete safety. For their part, fans are better educated than they’ve ever been (thanks to the Web) and are starting to side with the players in kerfuffles like labor disputes. Fans used to feel that owners somehow “earned” their money, while pro athletes were just fortunate winners of a genetic lottery. This is the exact opposite of the truth. (Holding on to your job is about 95 million times harder for a player than for an owner.) Sure, guys like LeBron and Carmelo Anthony are seen as mercenaries, but from a business standpoint, we understand their leverage ... and even appreciate and envy it. 
Basketball is a bit unique because the NBA salary cap restricts how much individual players can make. Lots of players are "maximum" level, and if they decide to change teams, every team in the league with cap space will offer them the maximum. In those situations, players use secondary factors, like favorable tax environments or climate, to make decisions.

But the NBA is the exception to the rule. One thing that has always alienated me from professional sports is that players have very little control over their career. Once drafted, the player is stuck with that organization for at least one year no matter what. When they try to get out of that situation, they are portrayed negatively by the media and fans. When they reach free agency, they generally just follow the money--there are exceptions, of course, but they are just that: exceptions. Your favorite player on your favorite professional team is there either because he is contractually obligated, or because they threw the most money at him. It is hard to romanticize that.

That's not to say the system is evil or that players shouldn't chase money (though I absolutely despise the draft process). And it's not to say that college players don't chase money, too. But just as you make a decision as to where to go to college or which team to cheer for, every college athlete makes a decision (mostly) severed from economic considerations to attend that institution. A linebacker is a Packer or Bear or Lion or Viking by coincidence; he is a Badger or a Wildcat or a Wolverine or a Gopher by choice. If LeBron's Decision leads to a professional sports environment where athletes have true attachment to their locales, that is the best news I've heard all year.