“There’s never been a better time to be an owner of an NBA franchise — or, frankly, any professional sports team.” — Washington Wizards Owner Ted Leonsis in 2016.
Sports are often described as something of a metaphor for life. We cheer on our modern gladiators because their feats of strength, agility and intellect challenge the limits of humanity’s talents. We all strive to be greater than we are, and sports is one of the few places where the masses can visually see the true potential of what the human body and spirit can do.
When it comes to the business of sports, they’re more than just a metaphor for life—they’re a demonstration of capital’s power over labor (if you’re confused as to whether you fall under the interests of capital or labor—if you do not own the business you work for, you are labor). Labor disputes are largely ignored by America’s capitalistic media, as evidenced by the atrophied mainstream coverage of the dramatic, organic, nationwide labor movement by America’s teachers still ongoing to this very day—or the relative silence around the 7,000+ writers in Hollywood who are currently going to war with the big four talent agencies who represent them over a transparent conflict of interest. Before labor issues recently became (kind of) en vogue along with the rise of socialism in America, really the only labor disputes most Americans were exposed to on a high-profile, mainstream scale happened in sports.
Between 1972 and 1995, Major League Baseball went through eight strikes or lockouts—one costing the league the 1994 World Series. The NBA owners locked out the players three times between 1995 and 2011. In 1992, NHL players went on strike and cost the league 30 games, and the league lost the entire 2004-2005 season in a lockout. The NFL has experienced six work stoppages since 1968. Every time, these fights are framed entirely around the intricacies of each individual league’s collective bargaining agreement, instead of the commonality across the fights spanning America’s four major sports leagues: billionaire greed.
We are on the cusp of another major labor battle in sports, and it is important that when these fights do arrive, we frame them in the same context as all other labor versus major capital battles—so as to highlight the general playbook being used by major capital to create the oligarchic world around us where everyone’s wages stagnate as CEO pay skyrockets.
The details each time are different, but the general tenor of any labor versus major capital fight is the same: a handful of owners are fighting to get more profits for themselves, while thousands of workers are simply fighting to be paid what their production is worth.
I specify “major” capital to separate billionaire jackasses like Dallas Cowboys owner/oil tycoon, Jerry Jones, from the millions of small business owners who are much less hyper-focused on short-term profits due to the lack of available wealth for most of us in this oligarchic world created by major capital like Jerry Jones.
“Right now, there’s going to be a strike, 100 percent, after 2021. I won’t be around, so I don’t have a horse in the race. I don’t want to see a strike.” — Philadelphia Phillies reliever Pat Neshek to USA TODAY Sports.
Craig Kimbrel is one of the best relievers in all of baseball, even now at the tail edge of his prime at 31 years old. In fact, you can make the case that Kimbrel is one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the sport. Among players who have thrown at least 500 innings (equal to roughly three years for a starter and about ten for a reliever), he has the third lowest Earned Run Average in the history of baseball (MLB has existed since 1869), and he only trails two pitchers who never pitched past the “dead-ball era” (which is exactly what it sounds like—when Babe Ruth set the home run record in 1919 with 29, the record he broke was 12—Ruth would go on to hit 685 more home runs after that. Ruth and Shoeless Joe Jackson basically invented modern baseball by shifting their weight to their back leg).
Simply put: Craig Kimbrel is a terminator sent here from the future to shame hitters into playing a different sport.
Craig Kimbrel is also unemployed nearly midway into the current MLB season.
So is 2015 AL Cy Young Award Winner Dallas Keuchel (the award given to the top pitcher every year).
Like I said before: greed.
This most recent offseason highlighted for all to see how utterly shameless MLB owners have become in chasing profits. Usually, when transcendent, generational talents like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado hit the free agent market, they are scooped up immediately in a bidding war, and their prices set the market price for all the lesser talents beneath them. Instead, in our hyper-capitalistic age, our sports owners have followed their fellow oligarchs’ lead, and are completely distorting their industry in favor of squeezing every last cent out of it for themselves—to the detriment of both the player’s paycheck and the team’s won-loss record (the Miami Marlins being the most extreme example, as a hedge funder bought them and did what hedge funders do: treated them like a distressed asset and immediately jettisoned the best outfield in baseball).
The lesser talents mostly still don’t sign until the big guys do, but the difference is now that Machado didn’t sign until February 21st—after Spring Training started—and Harper finally came off the market seven days later. Same thing happened to J.D. Martinez last year—who at that point had hit more home runs than anyone else in baseball over the last 162 games—when he didn’t sign with the eventual World Series Champion Boston Red Sox until February 21st.
This is baseball now. The best players in the sport can very easily go unsigned in free agency.
MLB players are beginning to fight back against this cynical new world imposed upon them by ownership. Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel are not unemployed due to lack of interest. They could sign a one-year deal with any team in baseball if they wanted to before this column publishes. Instead, the reason they remain unemployed is in defiance of a system so broken that it can refuse to employ a reliever in his prime with 59% more strikeouts than the greatest reliever of all time, Mariano Rivera, had at the same point in his career. Why simply accept less than you are worth because major capital is conspiring to underpay you?
This is a serious labor battle taking place largely on the basis of principle, as Dallas Keuchel told Yahoo:
”[My agent] wants me out there throwing, pitching, and putting up stats that are quality major league stats. I told him no on numerous deals because it’s about principle. It’s about fair market value. And I wasn’t getting that.”
“When people tweet at me, saying, ‘Hey, quit being the Le’Veon Bell of baseball,’ it is a funny line. But he stood up for himself. He stood up for his well-being. And I’m standing up for my well-being as well. It’s about principle in both situations. Now, I’m not looking to sit out this whole year. I wasn’t looking to sit out at all. But we are in this situation right now. I would love to sign tomorrow. I would love to sign right now.”
The most cost-effective way for a team to make money in baseball is to exploit the oppressive system where players are forced to spend a decade of their lives trapped under an employer who does not pay them above minimum wage before they even get to the big leagues, where they are then stuck under team control for six years before even gaining the ability to enter a free agent market that MLB owners now refuse to give any money to.
By choosing the NFL over baseball, Kyler Murray, a first round pick in the MLB draft and the #1 overall pick in the NFL draft, already made more money than he likely ever would playing baseball. It’s not a coincidence that Dallas Keuchel brought up Le’Veon Bell. MLB’s ruthlessness with their players is in some ways eclipsing the famously authoritarian NFL.
“We are advising players to plan for a work stoppage of at least a year in length.” — NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith in an email sent out to all NFL agents this week.
Instead of throwing numbers at you, I’ll just summarize Le’Veon Bell’s greatness for those unfamiliar with him in this gif.
By now you can probably surmise that he is (was) unemployed too—and it is of a similar defiant willing nature to Dallas Keuchel’s situation. Bell had a contract going into this last season, but it was the last year on it and he wanted a new deal that paid him commensurate with the top-level running back production that he provided to the Pittsburgh Steelers on his cheap rookie deal.
Instead, because Bell plays the most fungible position in football (and because it’s the NFL), the Steelers called his bluff, then Bell stared them down and sat out the entire season, giving up $14.5 million in the process. The problem here, like baseball, lies in the (less) restrictive nature of NFL contracts. Football players are stuck with the team for a maximum of five years, but unlike baseball, they jet right over to an NFL roster from the draft instead of loading on a bus to Poughkeepsie.
The central problem in all this is that the average NFL career lasts less than four years, so at especially brutal positions like running back and middle linebacker (the positions who slam into people bigger than them all day), there is no incentive for teams to ever pay out big contracts to players whose talents will inevitably be lessened by injuries. Ultimately, due to the destructive nature of the game, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for teams to to pay anyone good money who is not exceptionally great at football. This dynamic seems impossible to solve with an acceptable labor deal for both players and owners, and thanks to the galactically greedy nature of the NFL (it’s the only sports league where owners do not guarantee all the money promised to players in their contracts), the league looks destined to spend much of the coming years ebbing and flowing between major labor disputes.
”Shaq is rich. The white man who signs his checks is wealthy.” — Chris Rock in Never Scared
Everything in this world comes down to power. It’s what the Democrats do not understand and it’s why the Republicans control so much of our government despite being widely unpopular. Capitalism creates an inherently distorted power dynamic between worker and owner—especially in industries where it is cheap and easy to replace workers. This is why unions of workers are necessary; otherwise, capital utilizes its power over individuals to obtain more for them and less for the rest of us.
Sports is currently flush with cash thanks to the invention of the DVR rendering it and awards shows the last bastion of live TV advertising dollars, hence the quote from the Wizards owner at the top of this piece. This past decade has seen a dramatic rise in the net worth of all major sports teams in every league (including the definitely not professional NCAA and its endless corporate partners and billion-dollar TV deals)—even the left-for-dead MLS has arisen—all thanks to these new gargantuan TV contracts. Because greed, owners are trying to scoop up as much of this new fortune for themselves as possible, while leaving less of the growing pie for players. In baseball and football, this dynamic has regressed to such an extreme degree that it now seems impossible to envision a near-future without a labor stoppage in both sports (the NFL’s CBA expires in 2020, MLB’s in 2021).
In fact, this coming wave of sports labor battles may not be limited to the MLB and NFL, as the NHL could also experience a strike or a lockout later this year. Each side has the opportunity to opt out of their current bargaining agreement in September, and there are some major disagreements about the current deal. The players want to split league revenue 50-50 with the owners (like the NBA does), and the owners countered with a 50-50 proposal where a portion of players’ checks will be held in escrow. Again, we see this notion of principle come up in Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews’ opposition to the idea:
“I don’t care how much money you make or what you do, you sign a contract, you feel like you’ve earned that and you expect that your employer is going to hold up his end of the deal. At the end of each season to be told that they’re going to take back 10 or 12 or 15 or sometimes 20 percent of your contract? I think that’s a kick you-know-where. I don’t agree with that, and I think there’s a lot of things the NHL can do to promote the game and enhance the business side of the game. Their mistakes shouldn’t be coming out of the players’ pockets.”
Sports are one of the last shared cultural spaces that we have (to put sports’ largesse in context, at 13.6 million live viewers, the Game of Thrones series finale would have been the 71st most-watched NFL game last season). They resonate so powerfully with us because of the pure humanity expressed through sports—we are testing the limits of the human mind, body and spirit—and those who excel at these tests earn our adulation.
Historically, when it comes time for those players to be paid fairly for their success, sports fans have sided with owners, focusing on the millions (some of) the players reap instead of the billions siphoned off by a handful of billionaires (nor the hundreds of millions stolen from taxpayers to build stadiums for these billionaire owners). When these simmering fights inside America’s past and present pastimes finally do reach a boil, Americans would be wise to understand that their interests are aligned with the players, and what we are witnessing is not a metaphor or a dispute unique to pro sports, but the exact same greed-driven dynamic that is looting and pillaging all of major American industry.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.