Last night, Jon and I engaged in a conversation about the battle between owners and players. I started it because of the recent news that NBA players will attempt to “decertify” their union in a power play with the NBA. It is a bit long, but here are the results of the conversation.
Jon: I understand the antipathy and derision toward professional athletes, I really do. They’re paid an exorbitant amount of money (at least those in the three major sports) to do something that most people do only in their spare time for fun. And on top of the money, athletes get fame, women, and reservations at good restaurants. I should start by acknowledging that nothing they do should earn them the status they are afforded in our culture.
But on the other hand, if a sport generates a certain amount of money/ fame/ women/ restaurant-reservations, who should be the primary beneficiary? There are really only two answers, right? Either the players or the owners? And the reason I can’t support owners keeping a majority of the money has as much to do with politics as it does sports, I suppose: the players generate the majority of the money, not the owners. The business only works with good players, as both the Cavs and Indians have demonstrated in recent years.
There is, of course, a third option. Removing the disgusting amount of money associated with professional sports. But to take the money out of sports, we’d have to take the sports out of our lives. In other words, fans feed the beast, so it’s hard for me to get too riled up about the money-problems without looking at myself in the mirror and remembering that I’m complicit in the system that continues to manufacture ill-deserved millionaires.
So I guess I side, albeit with quite a few reservations, with the players. What about you?
Craig: I have to side with the owners. They are the bosses. They are the ones with the largest financial stake. They should get to have the largest hand in determining the success or failure of their business (or side business as the case may be.) The NBA specifically has jumped off a bridge of sorts where the owners’ willingness and abilities are becoming less important as a differentiator of franchise quality. This is obviously tainted by me being a Cleveland fan, but hear me out.
Dan Gilbert purchased the Cavaliers for $375 million. He was able to afford that because he made his other business wildly successful. Then on top of it, he went above and beyond the salary caps in order to try and win no matter the costs. Obviously it backfired and LeBron left. That in and of itself isn’t the problem, necessarily. Free agency is necessary. But it was a leading indicator that the league is in need of a serious shakeup.
Players are feeling entitled to their contract dollars. They have no respect for the franchise owners or the customers who make it all possible. The controls that are in place to make the league competitive and compelling are quite obviously failing if players like Carmelo Anthony and maybe Chris Paul can dictate where they are traded based on the fact that they won’t be hurt financially at all. The way things are going, the players have near one-sided contracts which require no consideration on their part when they request changes in terms.
I know these players aren’t slaves or indentured servants. Please spare me the wrath of Reverend Al. Free agency is important. LeBron was free to make his choice. At the same time, when the system is so far out of whack that the franchise owners, who have far more committed financially than players, and the fans who make it all possible, are secondary factors in player movement and team quality then the sport is teetering in my opinion.
When a business fails its franchise owners and customers consistently, it goes under. It isn’t all the players’ fault, but their actions and manipulation of the game are the clearest indicator of problems league-wide. Even though they are far wealthier and more powerful than the players, doesn’t it feel like the franchise owners have been placed in a caste below the players?
Jon: Not surprisingly, I disagree.
You write: “It’s not all the players’ fault…” But of course it is! All of this is the players’ fault.
Players want: (1) money; (2) control; and (3) fame. That’s what they’ve used the union to achieve. I’m not defending the morality of that desire; I’m just suggesting that owners want the same things. And if I’m forced to give those things to one of them, it’s going to be the players. At least they give me a reason to watch. There has never been a time in my life that I’ve wanted to watch Dan Gilbert do something on TV–except maybe compose a drunken letter in Comic Sans. But Grady Sizemore? Sure, I’ve paid to watch him.
This may or may not be an interesting off-shoot, but I think we’ve touched on why I’m fundamentally opposed to salary caps. Obviously, as a fan of various “small market teams” (i.e. “Cleveland teams), a salary cap can help my teams “compete”. On the other hand, salary caps are explicitly designed to funnel money toward owners who don’t have to build a winning team. Randy Lerner has made hundreds of millions of dollars because the NFL underpays its players while owners like him make money off their own incompetence. (Say what you will about the Indians, but nobody’s getting rich on their rebuild. Those are real market forces at work.) So is it surprising that most owners support salary caps? Not at all: it keeps their costs controlled while their revenues grow exponentially. Even the Yankees want a salary cap. That should tell you something.
For me then, it’s less about “what is right?” than “which is worse?” Show me an owner who loses money making an honest investment, and perhaps I’ll change my tune. But when Cleveland fans praise Dan Gilbert for his prodigal spending, they forget that most of his outlays were designed to protect his golden goose. Now that he’s gone, I expect frugality to rule. (I could be wrong, but I bet the team is trying everything within its power to shed expensive contracts this season.)
So as long as there’s such thing as an “unguaranteed contract”–an oxymoron, in my book–and players in every sport are told which city that have to play in (would you take that deal?) while owners continue to line their pockets whether they win or lose, consider me unimpressed with the plight of all these poor billionaires. In the battle of the rich and talented against the rich and incompetent, I’ll choose the talent. At least they generate some value.
And, as Paul Simon would say: ‘You Can Call Me Al’. But I that means I get to call you Betty.
Craig: We are just going to have to agree to disagree on this one. Say what you want about the stupid decisions that Randy Lerner has made as an owner, but he has spared no expense in firing people in the midst of guaranteed contracts in order to try and turn around what is on the field. Also, this is the first I am hearing that the New York Yankees would welcome a salary cap. A floor, yes. A cap? Not so much.
In the end, I expect owners to be competitive with their businesses. The Pittsburgh Pirates are a case in and of themselves. We spend far too much time talking about that club honestly. It is an outlier and an exception as opposed to the rule. Sometimes owners are too clueless to be competitive, but that is only partially their fault. When you buy a McDonald’s or a Subway there is a clear operational method that should at least keep you somewhat on the right path. That is what I am hoping the NBA improves with this next CBA. The players will still be millionaires, but their movement should be more limited and their power reduced a bit. It isn’t like they can’t afford it. This is a league where Brian Scalabrine has career earnings over $17.5 million and Eric Snow made just over $50 million. It is partially the owners’ fault too, but the system allowed it.
At the end of it all, I guess neither one of us is right or wrong. In order for the NBA to be successful it has to be a delicate balance between the owners having some control, the players having some control and the fans as customers feeling like they are receiving a product that is worth paying for. Right now the way this league is going, I think the players’ power and lack of respect is a bit too high compared to the owners. The players, in my mind, as millionaires should be somewhat grateful to the billionaires that bought the franchises and pay their wages.
That doesn’t mean they should be slaves to the owners. I said there had to be a balance. Right now with the outlandish player demands all over the league I think the power balance is off.
You know what? I just thought of something. I think I found the perfect solution. We should just blame player agents and be done with it.